If anyone knows what to order at restaurants, it's chefs. Taking menus from their imaginative stages to physical manifestations on plates, chefs are experts on what to order in a way that those of us who have never managed a kitchen may never be.
However, with a few pointers in menu literacy, it is possible to order better at restaurants.
"I look for things that are eye-catching to me: Anything that I haven’t seen before or a flavor combination that I can’t imagine in my mouth," chef Nini Nguyen of Brooklyn’s Cook Space said, explaining how she first approaches a menu. If nothing extraordinary stands out, she looks for classics she enjoys eating, like moule frites, onion soup or coq au vin (particularly at a French bistro).
Limited menus may also make ordering (and dining) easier.
"I love restaurants that only make a few things. It helps me because I am very indecisive and it gives the staff the chance to focus and really elevate those few things," Nguyen said. She also tends to look at menus before visiting a restaurant, to get excited for the meal and perhaps pre-plan what she’ll order.
Of course, the specials can always mess up your ordering plan. And vague terminology, very popular on menus that would rather list pretentious ingredients than actual preparation methods, can lead you astray. To feel good about her choice, Nguyen looks for keywords for her favorite ingredients: Hazelnuts, mushrooms, bottarga, uni, yuzu, and anything shellfish. The only ingredient she truly avoids? Goat cheese. “I just don’t have the palate for it,” she said.
What else are chefs skipping when they dine out? We asked a few to share their insights.
"I never order chicken at restaurants in general because the quality and availability of other birds such as quail and guinea hen, as well as rabbit, make for much more interesting dishes," says Yosuke Machida, chef at San Francisco's Chambers Eat + Drink. Unless the restaurant specializes in chicken, Machida goes with “something else."
Chef Tadaaki Ishizaki of Salt and Charcoal in Brooklyn, also never orders chicken at a restaurant not specializing in chicken, noting that it's probably just on the menu as a crowd-pleaser for unadventurous eaters. Besides the inherent misery endured by chickens raised at factory farms, there's another reason to avoid poultry in general. "The amount of chemicals in chicken just personally scares me," Ishizaki said. “If the menu doesn't list the provenance of a chicken, don't order it unless you want a plate full of hormones and antibiotics."
2. Chicken parmesan
Chef Phil Pretty, of Long Beach’s Restauration is fine with ordering chicken — unless it's followed by parmesan. “I would never, ever order chicken parmesan," Pretty said. “It's always frozen before cooked and tastes like a gross version of chicken nuggets."
3. Corned beef hash
Iron Chef alum Jehangir Mehta and current executive chef and co-owner of New York’s Graffiti Earth says he would never order corned beef hash at a restaurant. His rationale? The dish was invented during wartime when beef was rationed in extremely limited quantities.
“Although I have never been in any of the world wars, I know that people were forced to eat [corned beef hash] out of necessity," Mehta said. "I don't see why you would choose it for brunch in 2017 … there are plenty of delicious other options.” Mehta applies the same rationale to spam and eggs.
4. Seafood pasta
"This is a very hard question for a chef because, for the most part, I like to eat everything," said Tim Cushman, chef/co-owner of Cushman Concepts (o ya, Hojoko Japanese Tavern and Covina). Still, on Italian menus (and depending on the restaurant), Cushman has a specific category he avoids: Seafood pasta. "It's usually served with a really thin noodle like angel hair and is one of the hardest pastas to cook perfectly."
5. Free bread
“I never eat the bread that comes before the meal. I'm usually too busy drooling on the menu. I love reading menus — it’s like a dorky foodie hobby of mine," said chef Christena Quinn of Brack Shop Tavern in downtown Los Angeles. Plus, why fill up on bread when you're at a restaurant for the dishes?
6. Super luxe ingredients
Chef Tim Carey of Pasadena’s Lost at Sea avoids high-end ingredients or menu add-ons like white truffles and caviar. "It's cheaper for me to buy them wholesale and eat at home," Carey said. Those who are not professional chefs may also find that buying these ingredients at specialty stores at retail pricing is still significantly less costly.
7. Fish on a Monday
Anthony Bourdain has since debunked his famous Kitchen Confidential adage that you should never order fish on a Monday, but plenty of chefs still exercise caution when considering what days of the week to dine out for seafood. "Fish markets are closed on Saturday so best case, the fish available over the weekend was caught on Thursday. Hence I never order fish on a Monday … unless I know the chef personally." Kevin Adey, chef-owner of Brooklyn’s Michelin-starred Faro and former Le Bernardin cook said.
8. Seafood in general
"Unless I'm at a chef-driven spot, I generally don't order seafood because I have trust issues," said Chris Coleman, executive chef at Charlotte, North Carolina’s Stoke. "Freshness, quality and point of origin are sometimes questionable." The environmental group Oceana estimates that one-third of all seafood sold in the U.S. is mislabeled.
9. Anything you can (easily) make at home
Eleven Madison Park chef Nini Nguyen (and current culinary director at Brooklyn’s Cook Space) is obviously pretty competent in the kitchen, but she’s not going to order anything off a menu that she can make at home easily. "If I order pasta, I want it to be freshly made pasta," Nguyen said. "It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be well executed and thoughtful."
10. Any animal tattoed on the chef's body
Chef Oscar Cabezas, of Teleferic Barcelona in Walnut Creek, California, also doesn’t order anything he can easily make at home and follows another rule for restaurants and his home cooking: He doesn’t eat any of the animals inked on his body. “It's kind of a respect to them, like a deal: They offer me their protection and I protect them as well," Cabezas said. His tattooed animals include rooster, snake, Mediterranean corvina (a fish), lynx and bald eagle (thankfully not popular on menus).
"Dining out is both a blessing and a curse for a cook," said chef Claire Welle of Brooklyn’s Otway. “Being out means you’re not at work, you're away from the kitchen and someone else is actually cooking the food for a change. But it also means that someone else is cooking your food, and somehow, a little guilt sets in. Out of pure respect, and, to be honest, a bit of irrational thinking, I’ll never order artichokes in a restaurant. The thistle is probably the most feared and time-consuming ingredient you can work with."
Knowing that every order of artichokes that comes into a professional kitchen adds to cooks’ workloads, Welle can’t bring herself to order them at a restaurant.
12. Mesclun salad
Harold Moore of New York’s Harold's Meat + Three stays away from mesclun salad on any menu because it "seems uninspired, generic and all too often not given any love."