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Dining out, do you order what you can cook?

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Owning an Entertainment Book, a Diner's Deck, and the local 2-for-1 magazine as well as looking forward to the San Diego Restaurant Week coming up, I realized that we don't go out to eat as often as we used to. Every now and then we pop in somewhere for a burrito or a bowl of noodles or Thai food, but we talk about the nicer "high-end" restaurants more than we actually visit them. At first I thought it was because we're usually running around in "weekend" clothes and are rarely dressed for classier dining, but I think it's because I've gotten to the point where I'm hesitant to eat somewhere when I know I can cook it just as well for much less money.

We don't go to Ruth's Chris (or any other steakhouses) because we're just as happy getting filets from the butcher (or Costco) and grilling asparagus at home. We don't go out for rack of lamb because I can buy a rack for half as much and get more than 4 pieces on my plate. Last week we had ribeye and scallops surf 'n turf and opened up a bottle of wine and it was delicious!

However, we went to SF over Christmas and splurged on a nice dinner of sauteed crab and coq au vin. But, if I ever try to cook coq au vin, you can bet that's getting crossed off the restaurant list, too. We still go out for dim sum, Thai food, and osso bucco because they aren't dishes I'm willing to spend the time on in the kitchen. I look forward to ordering all sorts of soups because I just don't make them at home (except for tomato and french onion).

So, I was wondering, when you go out to eat do you look at the menu and try to find things you wouldn't cook for yourself? Do you order dishes like filets and ribeyes and shrimp scampi because you know you like it and you'll enjoy it anyway? Conversely, if you have a tasty sauce over salmon or something, do you try to recreate it at home?

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  1. Absolutely. We usually only go out to eat at places that cook food I can't create at home - either high end restaurants or restaurants that cook a type of ethnic food I don't know how to prepare well. And yes, with the bistro-style food especially, if I have something I really enjoy, I will try to duplicate it myself. If I'm successful, I order something different the next time.

    1. I came to the same realization recently--we don't go out all that often because I'm hardly ever satisfied with the food, particularly stuff I can (and do) cook at home. Which pretty much means just the two of us go out it's for Mexican (because I want fish tacos and my husband wants anything but), Chinese, pizza and bbq (though that's usually because I'm suddenly overwhelmed by the need for some ribs or pulled pork--never as happy with the restaurant version as I am with home-made).
      When we go out with friends, I always order fish because himself doesn't like it, so I tend not to cook it at home.

      1. I guess it depends on the restaurant, but yes, I do usually seek out items that I would not normally have at home. I almost never order chicken out because I cook so much of it, period. I mostly enjoy trying new items I've never had before. One son won't eat eggplant so I don't include it in our line-up at home but I love having it done in creative, spicy ways out at restaurants. Pho is another item that I would only order out because of the intricacies of preparing it at home, I doubt I would try making my own. I hardly ever order steak out because I can cook that at home any day of the year, filet mignon is a different story, though. I used to have a friend & co-worker who would only ever order chicken salad wherever she went, it didn't matter, and I felt so bad for her that she never ventured out of that "jail."

        1. i TRY to eat at places that make things i can't cook, however i am usually at the mercy of my DH and his friends and family, and end up at Red Lobster, or Poverino's, or (shudder) Bonanza!!!!

          no unique and interesting dining for me, and no fine dining or ethnic, unless i'm alone. Thus i usually have to try to make the dishes i can't really make, if i want them at all (does that make sense?) sometimes they turn out good, sometimes not.

          1 Reply
          1. re: RiJaAr

            I guess I can't complain too loudly b/c when we can't agree on where to eat, we usually order takeout and i get something great from a cheap ethnic place and i'm happy, and DH gets a burger or a pizza from somewhere else, so we both win!

          2. At first, I was going to say that I do order things I can make, but the truth is that often I do not. Things like steak, I normally do not order, because no one can marinate steak like my mom. However, if it is prepared in an "unique" way, then I would try it out--95% of the time, my mom's steak is way better and cheaper to make for a better cut of meat. One good thing about dining out is it will give you ideas on what you can make.

            1. Yes, I generally order things I can't make at home. I get annoyed if I order something, and it turns out that I can make it better than them. They are restaurant professionals; they should be able to make it better than an intermediate cook like me.

              I will also order things to get ideas for home meals. Or I will order things so that I will know how to make them correctly for future reference. For instance, I tried making dolmas, but I had never eaten them and wasn't sure how to roll them correctly. Lately, I have been ordering dolmas whenever I can.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Little Cupcake

                oooh I have the same problem with dolma! I eat them all the time. I tried to make them twice and they were not good either time. I think it's time for another attempt.

              2. I wouldn't ever go out to eat if I did that!!!

                However, I do go out much less frequently where I live than I do when I am traveling. Still, if I can find a stove to use in Paris or Lyon, I'm likely to be found cooking there, as well.

                1. I order things I can't make at home. Also, I usually refuse to make things at home that I can get better and cheaper elsewhere.

                  Hence, I never cook chinese or mexican, though I love those cuisines.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: yehudimenuhin

                    I agree with you on that -- wholeheartedly!

                  2. I often get things that I can't make at home due to my DH's and kid's taste preference (v. spicy food, vegetarian meals, anything exotic). Liver & onions at a good diner is one my favorites to order out- no one at my house will touch the stuff. I also like to order things that are complicated or expensive to prepare. Also tend to order fish/seafood out b/c I don't like the smell in my house. DH and I both tend to order things that re-heat nicely b/c portions are always so big in restaurants we have a doggie bag the next day.

                    1. I avoid ordering dishes that I can and do cook. Our restaurant choices are limited to high-end or divey ethnic because we've been disappointed so many times at everything in between.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: cheryl_h

                        I never thought about it that way, but that's soo true. Either cheap eats or fine dining my eat-out meals.

                        The middle ground is very sparse.

                      2. I agree with other posters that I tend to eat very cheap ethnic food or fancy high end food, and cook all the in between food myself because so many mid-range restaurants are big disappointments (especially in LA). And when I eat something I love, I'll usually try to re-create it at home. If I'm successful, I'll order it less when we go out.

                        However, when I find an amazing mid-range restaurant, I'm happy to order things I can cook at home.

                        The best example from 2006 is Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Almost everything we ate, I could have made at home (buy some fresh oysters, hit up a farmer's market for seasonal greens, get some good prosciutto from the deli, roast a chicken, sear a thick pork chop, bake a flourless, cake, whip up some ice cream, make a bloody mary, get fresh ground polenta from a gourmet store, etc.).

                        But if I really did make all of that myself, I would have been exhausted, had a fridge full of leftover odds and ends, my kitchen would be a mess, and it would have cost me way more than eating a meal at Zuni with 8 friends.

                        My two meals at Zuni were among my best of 2006, and most of the dishes were things an adept home cook could easily whip up. The beauty is in being able to eat perfect dish after perfect dish without lifting anything heavier than a glass of wine.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Pei

                          I think I feel the same way (you were just able to put it into words much better). I do enjoy "simple" meals at great restaurants because I don't have to cook, especially if you enjoy several dishes around the table.

                          The dishes I cook at home are rarely multi-course (if it's just the 2 of us) and sometimes end with cookies made from dough I stuck in the freezer because, as you note, I'd otherwise spend hours in the kitchen! Sometimes it is worth it to have someone else cook (and clean) for you.

                        2. As a general rule, I don't order anything in a resto that I can make at home. We will visit local cuisine restos while traveling to compare what we make at home versus what is "authentic".

                          1. Good question. No, generally, I won't order what I can cook but...

                            I'll often order something really unhealthy, something that I don't want to make at home because I don't want to have 6-8 servings of it (it's just me usually).

                            I'll go to a nearby Vietnamese place for pho, but there's a really good Southeast Asian market so I can recreate most Thai and Vietnamese dishes from area restaurants at home now for less.

                            If I already know a place has high quality beef, I'll get a steak, but it seems lately like maybe restaurant meat isn't that much better than you can get in the grocery store.

                            It has to be a really good place for a pasta dish to be better than what I can do at home, so I rarely order pasta

                            1. leanneabe
                              where do i get the 2 for 1 magazine? i need 1 for sd & 1 for the sf bay area

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: rdabke

                                One comes in the mail and is for the North County SD area, the other you can either pick up at some places in Hillcrest/North Park/Kensington and that one also has a couple of ads for downtown restaurants. The second one my boyfriend somehow gets in the mail (it could be mailed to certain zip codes) so I can't point out specific places to find it.

                                The Entertainment book you can find online for a lot of different cities. If you go to the movies a lot, the coupons pretty much pay for the book and you can look at the restaurant deals as a bonus!

                              2. Usually the restaurants that we go to are for nostalgic reasons and for consistently tried and true good food. No one does clam chowder or Louies like Spenger's in Berkeley. Or the cheap Italian food at Banchero's in Hayward, that place always has a line going out the door and down the street. We love the old time ambiance, seeing the cranky waiters and waitresses that have been there, some for 40-50 years. I love that stuff.
                                Casa Orinda in Orinda, has the most incredible bar and bartender, and the best family style dinners, they have the best fried chicken. And then there's the little mom and pop Chinese or Thai restaurants that use their own family recipes. Jeez I miss Blessings in Pleasanton, i don't know what happened but they're gone now and it was incredibly good food!

                                And that is what I find is missing when I go out to the newer restaurants, the menu changes too often, and sometimes the entrees are strange and hard to pronounce with ingredients that I've never heard of.

                                And what is really disappointing is to be given recommedations and raves about how good a restaurant is and it is average and over priced. The last time we went out to a very high end restaurant, which was recommended, my husband who adores seafood, thought that he was getting just that. What was set before him was were 3 black tubes that looked like bicycle tubing that had shrimp in them.
                                Found out later someone forgot the sauce....

                                1. Given the fact that I could probably cook anything well as long as I had a recipe for it, I don't use that as my guiding principle when ordering.

                                  Generally I prefer to go for dishes that because of complexity would be too time consuming for me to prepare at home.

                                  --Maria

                                  1. My dh might order his standby favorite but I would def. order something I could not/would not make myself. "Surprise me" is usually ringing in my head each time we dine out.

                                    1. Besides, of course, ordering some things I can't or won't make at home, occasionally I will try a dish in a restaurant that perhaps I'm thinking about making or might even have a recipe for, but want to see how the pros do it first. Of course, it depends on the restaurant, your previous experience with them and the trust factor.

                                      1. It does depend on the restaurant and chef. Searing bay scallops is not hard to do, but having someone's creation - with maitake mushrooms and celeriac puree - can be an interesting experience. (Catch, Winchester, MA)

                                        I totally agree with the steaks - I haven't been in a mid-high end steakhouse, esp the chains, in years, and even then it was a "mandated" business thing. Of course, the very top end is a different story - twist my arm and take me to Peter Luger's or BLT Steak...

                                        Other restaurant fare I can completely do without these days include red sauce Italian, low end or mediocre sushi and semi-Japanese (covers just about all of Boston), Americanized Thai.

                                        OTOH places I seem to enjoy, even after all these years, include great bistro (Onglet and Frites), and some of the ethnics - both low and high end (Vietnamese, non-Americanized Chinese, Jewish - deli/Roumanian). Cheap shabu-shabu at the local Vietnamese place (with tons of watercress and a really spicy kimchee broth) is getting a lot of hits in the cold months.

                                        And nothing wrong with a great pizza straight out of the oven.

                                        1. rarely, but its not about being able to cook it cheaper, its about being able to cook it better, or at least better to my taste. I have ordered things I am good @ out a couple of times & been disappointed. Now I know better.

                                          1. i order pizza because i can't get my oven hot enough to make a good one.

                                            1. It sort of depends. I can make pizza reasonably credibly, but I still like to go out for it. I am quite able to make a good steak, but sometimes I like to have someone else cook it for me.

                                              My trouble is that we live in the middle of the doggone nowhere, and there's a lot of stuff that I have had to learn to cook or else we just don't get any. But that's changing: even here in rural Iowa ethnic cultures are beginning to move in, so those foods are becoming more available. (Many of the locals are not so happy about this--xenophobia and all that--but having lived in much more diverse areas I think it's wonderful.) There are Mexican and Asian people running not just restaurants but also grocery stores where you can get ingredients many folks around here have never heard of. Used to be a really good Thai place in Storm Lake, of all places, which eased the transition from Portland to here quite a bit.

                                              When I go out and have something really intriguing and wonderful, I sometimes see if I can figure out how to make it at home. I made a batch of mole for this very reason--and decided that was more work than I wanted to put into a meal, so I'll leave that one to the professionals.

                                              1. I tend to order food I would make at home, but I try to remind myself not to. It's a hard habit to break.

                                                1. This is an ongoing problem for me. I'm a caterer/chef and my constant complain is the poor preparation/presentation and high cost of restaurant food. Consequently, I pretty much only go out for "ethnic" food, which I don't usually make. I'm pretty certain I can't make Indian or Ethiopian food better than my local places. I'd say that 90% of my meals out are at ethnic restaurants. The rest are usually paid for by someone else!

                                                  1. Thanks for posting the thread! We go out a lot less than we used to, and both of us think it's because we can cook something better than the majority of restaurants. Glad to know I'm not alone.

                                                    And yes, when we do go out, I generally order something that a restaurant can do better/cheaper/faster than I can.

                                                    1. I frequently order foods I can make, especially ones that I'm pretty proud of, and gauge a restaurant's goodness on the basis of how many of these things they can do better than I, or at least as well. The reason I became such a partisan of Pann's, a 1958-vintage diner not far from the Los Angeles airport, is that at least six of those dishes I've tried several times have been better to my taste than my own versions. This will make me both a happy diner and a better cook!

                                                      But, yes, there are some things I sort of know how to do but they're so much of a PITA that I prefer to pay someone else for them. Dim sum comes readily to mind...

                                                      1. I hate to sound cliche but it's all good. I can get equally excited over seeing Lamb Roti on a menu as I can over Monte Cristo Sandwiches. I am my father's daughter so I really appreciate upscale steakhouses but I also like grilling a good steak at home on my patio. As long as its good most restaurant food is fair game for my enjoyment.

                                                        1. I definitely try to avoid things I can do at home (salad!) and go for things I've given up trying to do myself- because I can't cook them well, and/or they seem to cost almost as much to do at home (scallops, duck, sashimi). On the other hand some simple things are so cheap & good out, Vietnames bun comes to mind, that I will never bother making them at home.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: julesrules

                                                            I have to add that I almost wish I didn't ever start making my own creme brulee, because that and flourless chocolate cake seem to be the only desserts on the menu these days and the thrill is gone now that I can make them myself. Used to be a nice treat too!

                                                          2. As a general rule, there are two things that I never order at a restaurant because it will always disappointment when I think about how good I can make it myself:

                                                            steak au poivre et pomme frites
                                                            paella

                                                            Beyond that, I'm game for anything.

                                                            1. Yes! I'm the same. I definitely prefer my way of making most things I feel I make well (if that makes sense LOL)...however, there's nothing like excellent Thai or sushi. I can't do those well at home, although I must admit I haven't tried many times.

                                                              1. Tend to order things that I can't make well or don't want to make a big batch of.

                                                                Plus part of the adventure of eating out is trying new food and new cuisine. If it's comfort food, I can do that easy at home. I really dislike eating out for American breakfast - I can do the eggs, bacon, pancakes/waffles just as well and breakfast out are kind of expensive for the quality of ingredients you get.

                                                                Only exception is I do get a burger at In-N-Out about once a month, even though I grind my meat at home and it's easy to cook burgers.

                                                                1. I order things I can't or don't make at home - because of lack of skill, time, space or ingredients. Usually I try to order what that restaurant's "specialty" is, or a dish I know I can't find in any restaurant.

                                                                  The exception: eggs. When I go for brunch, I like to have eggs, even though they're quick, easy and readily available for me to cook them at home.

                                                                  I also order restaurant salads if they're particularly creative or I'm craving veggies.

                                                                  1. I never order what I can cook myself, as I've always been disappointed. It has always paled in comparison to mine, even specialty stuff such as Sichuan or North Indian.

                                                                    1. Oh, I'll absolutely order what I can make. Depending upon the situation, it might be because I'd like to see if there's some flavor I can tweak in my next homemade version, or sometimes it's just that I don't want to clean up after my own cooking.