“Eighty-six!” We sling this slang around a lot in restaurant kitchens: Eighty-six means the cooks have run out of a menu item, as in, “Eighty-six the trout!” When something’s eighty-sixed, it means there is no more forthcoming — nada, zip, zilch — at least for now.
What’s its origin? There are a couple of theories about that. One is that a popular Gore Vidal comedy play from the 1950s, “Visit to a Small Planet” (later reprised as a movie with Jerry Lewis), featured an alien who used the command number “86” to destroy something. Another is that the Navy after WWII used the Allowance Type Code “AT-6” to catalog obsolete warship parts and equipment meant to be discarded. The television show “Get Smart” assigned agent code “86” to the bumbling Maxwell Smart, to suggest any mission he took on was “86’d.”
Eighty-six bleeds into all sorts of other restaurant-speak. If you change suppliers, the old one got eighty-sixed. If someone is fired, they’re eighty-sixed. Eighty-sixed can also mean incapacitated. Did someone over-imbibe and need to be sent home in a cab? Did an injury send a worker out for stitches in the middle of a shift? Yep: “He’s eighty-sixed for tonight.”
Some restaurants have a fancy point-of-sale system (“POS,” a term that neatly does double duty for a cumbersome or sub-standard one) that makes it easy to eighty-six a dish. With this equipment, managers can actually place a number in the computer that will drop down as the last few are sold, making it impossible for servers to place an order for a dish that’s … you’ve got it … eighty-sixed.
Restaurants without this technology can run down the count on a chalkboard. That doesn’t necessarily give enough notice, though. A professional server does not want to have to go back and tell a guest that the dish ordered is no longer available. Ideally, servers should be armed with this information before they take the order. So it’s often a verbal phenomenon, too. A line cook’s holla “Eighty-six the crab special!” might draw applause in the kitchen for a special so well designed that it sold out. It was just for tonight, so success means there’s none left over; no wasted product. On the other hand, if you have to eighty-six the fried chicken that’s a regular published menu item, everyone will grumble. “Chef’s gonna kill Rupert, we ran out of fried chicken again!” In either case, in a perfect world, servers will pass the word until everyone has the information.
Unfortunately, once in a while communication breaks down. As a cook, there’s nothing worse than getting a ticket for an eighty-sixed item. There’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth. You have to call servers back to the kitchen and inform them that they have to get a new order. They hate that. You hate that. The guest hates that. Nobody’s happy. Recriminations fly. The whole table’s ticket gets delayed while apologies are made and the new order is taken. Tips can suffer. People pout.
So, what’s the proper point at which to eighty-six a dish? It depends upon the pace of service, how busy you are. If it’s a special you created as a cook, you might puff up with pride and brag to everyone that your special sold like hotcakes. (“Selling like hotcakes” is another cool phrase from the restaurant world that dates to the early 19th century, when cornmeal griddle cakes cooked in bear grease or pork lard were so popular that, eventually, hotcakes became the standard for anything that sold well and in volume.) If it’s a regular menu item you didn’t prep enough of, you might delay the announcement until the last minute, praying to St. Martha — the patron saint of cooks — that you make it through service without having to announce an eighty-six. A decent cook will admit the mistake earlier rather than later, though, and take their lumps like a grown-up.
So be kind to your servers and the cooks who fill their orders. Try not to be too outraged if a restaurant runs out of something, unless it’s pizza at a pizza place or fish at a fish joint. Eighty-six your disappointment and get adventurous. You might just find something else on the menu that you’ve never ordered before, and fall in 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 Juleps Catering.