Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Hey — it’s your dinner!

May 6, 2009 at 5:00 am

So you’re out with friends for a celebratory meal, or perhaps just a regular meal, and — even though the menu’s obviously in English — you’re stymied. Parts of it seem to be Greek to you, and I don’t mean the part that says “hummus.” Hmmm, you think. I wonder what’s in a Bordelaise sauce? At this point, some folks whip out their iPhones and Google like mad. But don’t isolate yourself from the table conversation to do research — after all, you’re there to enjoy the company of your companions. Ask your server!

Frankly, some menu-writers take pleasure in playing “stump the diner.” It’s up to you to decide you’re not playing. There’s no shame in not knowing the components of an accompaniment, sauce or side dish based solely on its classical name. And it can be irritating when menu descriptions go beyond the pale. “Sous-Vide Freshwater Citrus-Scented Iceland Prawns, surrounded with a Celeriac-Courgette Puree and garnished with Parisienne Root Vegetables, Fondant Spring Onion Sets, Garlic Scape Julienne and Bourbon-Smoked Paprika Pea Shoot Oil” might sound intriguing, but if you’re brave enough to order it, what will you be presented? Ask your server.

Servers are supposed to know. That’s a difficult but important part of their job. Granted they may feel a little shaky on the evening’s specials, but they should have the rest of the menu descriptions down rock-solid, leaving them time before service to memorize the new stuff (they also should have the cocktail descriptions and wine list down pat).  

Where I work, any manager can call a “menu quiz” on any server, any time. If they’re lazy or off their game, they will be found out. And it’s not just a question of making guests feel comfortable by competently describing a dish to them — it could be a matter of a patron’s health or dietary preferences. We shouldn’t be serving a vegetable soup that’s boosted with chicken stock to a vegetarian without warning. We shouldn’t be serving a heavy cream sauce to someone who’s lactose intolerant. We shouldn’t put croutons on a lovely spring salad and serve it to someone on a gluten-free diet.

And you shouldn’t have to bring a thesaurus and a culinary dictionary to dinner. While it’s up to you to inform the server of your personal dietary restrictions, it’s on them to answer your questions knowledgeably and cheerfully. These questions should never be met with eye rolling or a heavy sigh from the server. Now, if it’s really busy, please try to be patient — and perhaps pretend you didn’t see that tortured smile if they have to excuse themselves to go back to the kitchen and ask the chef just to be safe. They’re already going to get ribbed by the cooks for not knowing the answer before service. And if they do answer your questions with grace and skill, tip them well. They deserve it.