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Apr 14, 2007 05:31 PM

Deciphering restaurant menus: what to avoid?

For the most part I choose well at restaurants even in unchartered territory but in the past year I have made two bad choices. With hind site being 20/20 I figured words like balsamic reduction or tuna tower should be avoided. What are some other potential menu landmines?

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  1. This might be obvious, but whatever is not that restaurant's speciality (like ordering creme brulee at an Italian restaurant, or ordering pasta at a steakhouse)... always a bad idea.

    1 Reply
    1. re: littlegreenpea

      I am remembering the bland chili-topped spaghetti at Bob's Big Boy... and not fondly.

    2. Go "midrange" or even "lower range" on the menu. The extreme high-priced items are likely to be more show than substance.

      Also, don't be afraid to ask for what you want. Mind you, you shouldn't nitpick ("sauce on the side, no garlic, hold the oil") but if you want a different accompaniment, or even something not shown, ask. Be prepared to pay, and to take "no" for an a swer, but you should feel free to ask.

      1. Dont order items at a restaurant you can make very well at home. Disappointment.

        I try to avoid whatever is the fad food of the season. It suddenly appears on all the menus.

        1. I never ever order chicken in a resto (except wings). chicken is chicken is chicken, imho

          6 Replies
          1. re: orangewasabi

            So you won't order murgh makhani (indian butter chicken), chicken cordon bleu, or Jerk Chicken because "chicken is chicken is chicken"? :-o

            1. re: mclaugh

              sorry, I was too quick. Yeah, chicken in ethnic places (if I can still use that term) is much better. But chicken at a place that also has balsamic reduction or tuna tower on the menu, nope.

              That said, I am way more likely to order bindi badji, curry goat or steak tartare than the chicken options you listed.

              1. re: orangewasabi

                I agree, I never order roast chicken because I can make it well myself. Although maybe if I was at Zuni...
                My rule for pan-Asian places (of which we seem to have a zillion in L.A.) is not to get things that you love at authentic Asian places -- don't order the tom yum soup for $15 when it won't be as good as the $6 soup at your corner Thai take-out. It's usually safer to stick with the grilled seafood or steaks.
                Don't order things with too many ingredients, it's rare that they will all combine well.
                In fact, it's better in general to stick to the simpler things -- if every one around you is having the cobb salad and hamburger, you probably don't want the fettucine alfredo.
                I'm extremely skeptical of desserts in restaurants -- I don't usually order them, but I think I would be likely to ask where they're made, because too many restaurants buy their desserts pre-made from mediocre suppliers.

                1. re: Chowpatty

                  There's one exception to this- the chicken at the bar at Palena is simply divine. It's the only place I generally order chicken when I'm out with the exception being those cheap roast chicken places for a quick work lunch.

                2. re: orangewasabi

                  I would say "I save the chicken ordering for places I know do it beautifully"... which includes a requisite chicken tikka masala at an Indian place, or the pounded chicken with artichokes and leeks in a white wine sauce at an Italian place I love. After that, it's KFC or nothing.

              2. re: orangewasabi

                Funny -- chicken is one thing I almost never order either, well, specifically, anything made with chicken breast, super specifically, grilled chicken breast. It's just asking for a dried out hunk of tasteless protein.

              3. I had not too long ago read an article where the author dissected a menu and made suggestions as what to order and what to avoid. I can't recall where I read it, perhaps on the Washington Post. Some of the tidbits I recall were:

                1) Avoid fois gras if the price seems cheap
                2) Avoid the vegetarian entree if it is the only vegetarian entree on the menu
                3) If its a good restaurant with a high quality chef and they have some chicken dish (other than a boneless breast) try that dish. The reasoning was the chef is trying to show his skills by placing a well made chicken dish on the menu.
                4) Don't stray from the restaurants main themes.

                That's all I can recall from the article. If anyone else recalls this article, please let me know. Also Tony Bourdain had some suggestions in his Kitchen Confedential book. These involved avoiding mussels unless you know the restaurant and something about avoiding certain foods on Sundays and Mondays. The details escape me at the moment.

                4 Replies
                1. re: rcheng

                  I didn't see the article, but a chef/owner friend of mine told me something like your #2, if a restaurant only has one fish dish, avoid it. It means that they really aren't comfortable with fish and only have it because they feel they should. I also avoid restaurants that have overly long menus - no restaurant can make that many dishes well.

                  1. re: bropaul

                    I disagree with this. Many authentic Asian restaurants have menus that are a mile long, and most/many of the items are delicious!

                  2. re: rcheng

                    that was by Todd Kliman in the Washingtonian magazine. It was very informative. It's probably on the Washingtonian Web site.

                    1. re: Bob W

                      Excellent, I was going nuts trying to remember where I had read that. It's a highly recommended read!! Here's the link. Thanks!


                      (By the way, I may be immature, but I had misread the title of his article titled "Myoung Dong" and spent about 15 seconds giggling. After reading it, I wished I lived closer to Beltsville!)