The art of the menu and ordering good food

Tips on making a great menu and avoiding buyer's remorse

The restaurant can choose to reprint its menus, absorb the cost, or tack on a surcharge, as Punch pizza did when the price of the pine nuts in its Punch Salad skyrocketed earlier this year. But a menu is a promise between the restaurant and its diners: If the menu says the ketchup is homemade, it had better be homemade; if it says the beef is prime, it must be prime. To the restaurant that substituted shrimp for the lobster it promised in a pasta dish without first informing the diner: One of your customers, Saffron chef-owner Sameh Wadi, is too tactful to shame you publicly, but that doesn't mean he wasn't ticked.

And now, to make the best choice on a menu, a savvy diner...

1. SKIPS THE OBLIGATORY ITEMS —UNLESS THE CHEF TAKES THEM SERIOUSLY

"I tell my students, 'If you put this on your menu I will shoot you,'" Locke says in reference to the ubiquitous grilled chicken Caesar salad. Making an exception for house-made dressing, Locke asks the rhetorical question: "Why do I need to go to a restaurant to open a jar when I can make a grilled chicken Caesar at home really easily?" Restaurants provide a different service than grocery stores—Loring Kitchen, I'm talking to you and your bowls of cold cereal.

Take chicken, which is desirable to many customers for its low price point and mild flavor, but often turns out boring. Unless it's a house specialty—fried chicken at a soul food joint, for one—or in the hands of a skilled chef, you probably want to skip it. "Hopefully, with obligatory menu items," Wadi notes, "the chef is savvy enough to make them interesting." His chicken holds its ground next to the menu's lamb shoulder and duck breast entrées because it's marinated with exotic spices, roasted, and basted with butter, so the skin gets crisp and the meat stays succulent.

2. LOOKS FOR OUTLIERS

We're not talking about the sports bar's rendition of chicken stir-fry. Keep in mind that cultural dilettantism generally tends to be dicey, and barbecue and pizza tend to be best at places that focus exclusively on them. But at chef-driven restaurants, diners can learn to spot creativity and personality—the daring dish that the chef really wanted to put on the menu, knowing it may have to come off in a month if it doesn't sell.

At Saffron, the lamb brains appetizer is an outlier that became a sleeper hit. "I sold out of lamb brains on a Thursday," Wadi says. "Never in my life did I think I'd have such awesome customers." Wadi can be more adventurous with his menu because those are the sorts of dishes customers want to order when they come to his restaurant. "I've never worked at a restaurant that sold as little beef as we do," he says. "But it's not the star of the show."

3. SEEKS OUT LEADERS

Grocery stores sometimes discount popular items to at or below cost to lure shoppers who will, in turn, buy a whole cart full of profitable goods. Restaurants will sometimes employ a similar strategy for dishes they hope will distinguish them from their competition.

At D'Amico's new Parma 8200 in Bloomington, much of the menu tends toward Italian classics, such as chicken Parmesan. But the restaurant also offers a few more original items, including the grilled asparagus with burrata and roasted hazelnuts. The luscious cheese is expensive and highly perishable, but Richard D'Amico says they priced it competitively so people would be encouraged to order it and enjoy their experience. "We don't make as much money on it," he admits. "We probably get the worst margin on that dish, but it all balances out."

4. ASKS THE SERVER

What's the main piece of advice about navigating a menu that chefs and restaurateurs wanted to pass on to diners? Ask the server. Ask for highlights, must-haves, and what the employees like to order. The servers are on the front lines of customer feedback; they see what dishes diners polish off and rave about, and which ones are merely picked at. "Put your trust in the service team," Burley says. "If you can't put trust in the service, then you're in the wrong restaurant."

5. ORDERS OFF THE MENU

This advice certainly depends on the type of restaurant—how busy it is, how flexible it can be—but it can apply to both the pickiest and most adaptable eaters. Michelle Whitelaw, who manages operations at Dancing Ganesha, says she encourages diners who don't see something they want on the menu to ask if it can be made. Typically, the kitchen can make, say, a grilled chicken breast and rice for someone who hates spicy, highly seasoned food, or an animal-free dish for a vegan. "People can be accommodated," she says. "Chefs love to be creative and to be given the opportunity to do something they don't do every day."

For adventurous eaters dining at chef-driven restaurants, the best option may be to follow the sushi bar practice of omakase, which translates, roughly, to "It's up to you," and leave your meal in the hands of the chef. Tell the server what sorts of things you like, how much you'd like to spend, and let them plan your meal for you. "That's what I typically like to do," Wadi says. "I just say, 'Go ahead, you pick for me.'"

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