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October 6, 2010

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Yes you can

With a wealth of independent restaurants gracing the regional dining scene, local foodies have a surfeit of prix fixe dinners to choose among. Last week, I counted at least five beer-paired multi-course dinners for Louisville Craft Beer Week, and it seems we are offered at least two wine or beer-paired multi-course dinners every month.

Here’s how it works: A restaurant chef writes a special, multi-course menu for a specific date. In concert with a sponsoring winery or brewery, the menu is paired with beverage offerings from the sponsor. You pay a fixed price (prix fixe) for the meal, and the menu is published in advance so would-be diners can salivate over the planned courses while deciding whether to make reservations.

But hold on. Your beloved vegetarian wife is looking over your shoulder at the menu on your computer monitor. She likes wine (or beer); she’s intrigued by the appetizer course; the palate-cleansing intermezzo (often a refreshing sorbet) sounds amazing; and the dessert is obviously to die for. But both the soup course and the entrée feature meat.

Does this mean you have to abandon the whole idea of attending the dinner? It shouldn’t. Yes, you can request alternate dishes for some of the offered courses.

The chef will be in a flurry of creativity already, so it’s a good time to ask; but your timing has to be right. Don’t wait to ask as you arrive and are being seated. Don’t ask when the course is being placed in front of you. Ask when you make your reservation.

Try: “The menu looks spectacular, but my wife is vegetarian — is there any possibility the chef would offer another soup or entrée for her?” Then be prepared to wait. It would also be wise to ask them to call you back after they’ve consulted the chef — you don’t want to tie up the line while they track the boss down.

This “alternate request” etiquette goes for regular dining out, too. Do your research. If you find a restaurant menu on the Internet and think, “That looks great, but I can’t eat the shrimp,” then call ahead and ask if they can make it with some other ingredient. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask, “Can you make the shrimp and grits for us with salmon instead?” — but ask in advance. Be prepared for a slight surcharge in some cases, but any good chef will honor your request if it’s made in a timely manner.

Finally, don’t be “that guy” — the one who sees a fabulous vegetarian entrée placed in front of a diner at the next table and, though an omnivore, says to the server, “Hey, that looks good. I think I’ll have that instead.” That’s a no-no. It causes much consternation and scrambling in the kitchen, and you’re likely to get something thrown together at the last minute — and not nearly as good as it would have been had you asked in advance.

Know this: We chefs adhere to the G.I. Joe motto: “Knowing is half the battle.” Don’t hamstring us with “I don’t eat ham” in the middle of a dinner themed “Love Song to Pork.” If you do, we will be trash-talking you behind those kitchen doors. With love, though. With love.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as Sous Chef of the new residence hall, Gardiner Point.