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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!)

                  3. If you don't like the breadbasket, don't order a sandwich.
                    Be careful when it comes the trendy ingredients/dishes - it could be that the restaurant just feels obligated to serve it.
                    Don't order dessert in a place that serves bad coffee. It means that part of the meal is just an afterthought.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: piccola

                      Not always true- I know of more than a few bars with truly excellent food including dessert, but their coffee is terrible.

                      1. re: jpschust

                        That's very possible. I just meant that it often signals a lack of attention to the end of the meal, which can mean bad dessert.

                        This is particularly true of places that serve instant coffee. I'd bet a lot of the desserts are semi-homemade.

                        1. re: piccola

                          The number of places that make their own desserts outside of the very high end are few and far between. A good read: http://waiterrant.net/wordpress2/?p=435

                          1. re: piccola

                            Should we add Lipton tea to that? (At otherwise mid-level restaurants)

                      2. I stay away from "specials" that sound like the repurposing of food they couldn't sell other nights.

                        10 Replies
                        1. re: Megiac

                          unless you'd been there the night before, how would you know that?

                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                            There are a lot of key hints- the biggest one is any sort of stew is a deadfire giveaway that it's old food.

                            1. re: jpschust

                              While I see that a stew could be an example of "repurposing" food, you really can't make that assumption unless you know the kitchen well--actually, I'd go as far as to say unless you've worked at the restaurant, which I think is the only way to be sure of what goes on in a kitchen. Whether or not the kitchen would try to sell food that is borderline or past its prime varies tremendously, and in my experience it mostly has to do with the ideology of the chef.

                              1. re: nc213

                                You're really going to tell me that you can't guess that mussel stew served on a Sunday isn't just a reuse of old seafood?

                                1. re: jpschust

                                  I'm really going to tell you that you (or I) as a customer, don't know enough about what goes on in any given kitchen to "know" that any dish is the reuse of another. I can absolutely see a series of possible mussel stew scenarios: 1. kitchen has a lot of mussels. decides to offer a stew as well as regular steamed version in hopes of selling more. 2. chef went to a vietnamese resto on Fri afternoon and had an amazing mussel stew/soup. grew inspired and decided to try his own version 3. externing chef wants to try out making a special. has had some experience with seafood stews and asks chef--can I make a mussel stew for Sunday's special? 4. chef comes in and says, you know what would be a great special for a blustery day like today? a hearty stew--hey, what do we have enough of for me to make a stew.

                                  I could list five or six more that I've seen happen over the years. I am *not* saying that the stew *isn't* a way to use up old food; it certainly could be. I have worked with chefs who would readily do so and I have worked with chefs who would never do so. My argument is that you can't make that assumption with any certainty because as a guest you don't have enough information to be anywhere near sure.

                              2. re: jpschust

                                no i would not make the assumption that stew is old food. of course if i walked in and the place smelled like bad fish, i likely wouldn't stay.

                                as nc articulates below, stew can have many reasons for being featured. could be as simple as they got 20 pounds of mussels instead of 10 and know a special will sell more than a menu item does.

                                furthermore, knowing the power of commercial refrigerators, fish delivered on friday should still be just fine on sunday. lots of those *rules* came about long before our modern super-fast shipping and high-powered fridges.

                                1. re: jpschust

                                  The largest selection area in my menu was the stew/soup section. Stews are a mainstay of Korean meals and we NEVER reused food to make a stew. Ever!!

                              3. re: Megiac

                                jfood ordered some braised short ribs that were from the night before and they were spectacular. Several other tables saw them on my plate and tried to order as well, but they were already spoken for.

                                1. re: jfood

                                  All About Braising calls for them to be made a day in advance if possible!

                                  1. re: julesrules

                                    Jfood's Book of Braising also calls for a full cooldown and reheat.

                              4. Firstly, I like both balsamic reductions and if the chef wants to vertically integrate the tuna, i couldn't care less on the angle as long as its good.

                                My first rule is to walk very slowly to the table and casually observe the other dishes on other tables. Very few menus accurately describe the dish, but one visual can tell a lot about the meal. Jfood has also been known to wonder to the restroom to gather more data on the other tables. Then the fun begins.

                                - As others have stated, stay away from non-comfort zone meals. If it's an ethnic resto, stay true to the chef.
                                - Next look at the specials. One may really jump right up and say "please try me." One resto in town I rarely order from the regular menu and always get from the specials.
                                - Do not discard any choice. One of the best restos in stamford ct, Napa, makes a roasted chicken like none other I have ever eaten. Thankfully Mrs Jfood orders it so i can get a taste and still order what I want.
                                - If the resto has a standard special on a given day it might mean that the chef really likes to make it but there is not demand enoough to have it as a daily regular. I have never been disappointed in this choice even when it was meatloaf in chicago.
                                - If something is waaay overpriced it probably does not move as much as you would like, except for Dover Sole, which is always overpriced.

                                Last, you just gotta go with your gut. Yes you will have a meal or two that just doesn;t make you excited, but chalk it up to experience.

                                1. I also tend to ask the server "I am trying to choose between X and Y - what do you recommend?"
                                  Sometimes their rec'dations are duds, but mostly they're great!

                                  1. I never order anything that is one of my 'comfort foods'. No matter how good it is, it won't be as good as that from my memory. They're comfort foods because of the memories that accompany them, which are prompted by whatever Mom did to the dishes to make them uniquely hers.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: ricepad

                                      I'm always leery of ordering something "blackened", unless I happen to know that restaurant really DOES do it well. (Thank God that trend has largely vanished.)

                                    2. Don't order anything "stuffed". (Shrimp, mushrooms, pork chop, etc.) You run the risk of getting a plate of inedible gooey bread crumbs with a few things (Shrimp, mushrooms pork chop) stuck in it.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Gin and It

                                        Actually, I love the stuffed shrimp at a particular casual seafood place. They split the shrimp and stuff it with herbed cheese and jalapenos, wrap the whole thing in bacon, and grill. Decadent.

                                      2. i don't like to order anything in quotation marks. just too cutesy, no real reason.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                                          You wouldn't be able to eat at Per Se then!

                                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                                            It also make it look as if they're trying to hide something. A couple of years ago I found myself at some trendy place on the beach in Fort Lauderdale (translation: they're probably making most of their money from selling low-grade booze) that was serving the Penne "Pasta" on the menu. It may have had something to do with the fact that I was pretty well sleep-deprived by the cross-country redeye I had arrived on, but I was led to wonder if the stuff was made out of Soylent Green or something like that...

                                          2. Well, I've read all of the posts and I think if anyone were to follow all of the advice, there'd be nothing left to order. Leaving us with: take the restaurant, the day of the week, how things look on plates you can see, how the place smells, the description on the menu and your tastes into account and then order what sounds good to you. Later we can revisit the threads about sending food back.

                                            1. My defensive dining list of ordering food in restaurants:

                                              - I never order chicken. It's boring to me and I can cook it in almost any way. Most of the flavor in a chicken dish comes from the seasonings. In my opinion, it's like a blank canvas. I'd rather order duck, tuna, lamb or seafood. One exception is General Tso's Chicken at Chinese takout restaurants (but that's not dining out).

                                              - Order the specialty of the house. If a restaurant is known for its dry aged beef, by all means, order it. Unless you are in a city where fish is plentiful, it'll be an afterthought at that restaurant.

                                              - Watch out for "specials" in some restaurants. Filet Mignon shich-k-bobs? Yep, that's leftover filet, or a creative way to use the tips of the tenderloins. At least eat at the restaurant that will call them tournadoes :-) However, not all specials are ways to get rid of extra food. Sometimes a chef will test out a new dish by putting it on the menu as a special, eventually putting the popular ones on the menu. That being said, I have great respect for a chef who can use leftovers and scraps to make a creative and innovative "special."

                                              - I'm an adventurous diner, but I don't throw away money. I don't need to be a pioneer either, so I will generally ask around to friends, family and coworkers about experiences they've had at a certain restaurant before dining there. EVERYONE has an opinion, just be sure you think before you take advice (make sure they are on the same food playing field). Plus, the internet has numerous sites like Chowhound where you can pick up some great tips.


                                              1. My best friend's theory (and she eats out for work 7-8 meals a week) is best summed up as "Don't test the chef". Which means order meat at a steak house, pasta at an Italian place, etc. If you're eating at a diner, don't order tuna tartare, order a patty melt.

                                                7 Replies
                                                1. re: lulubelle

                                                  In addition to the good points that have already been mentioned, I want to add another caveat. Unless you want to eat cheap, commercially prepared frozen food that has been microwaved, don't order:

                                                  "Jalapeno Poppers"
                                                  Fried Mozzarella Sticks

                                                  In fact, if a restaurant features these items on its menu, then I begin to fear that many of the other items are merely portion-packed, commercially prepared foods. If a diner lists these items, it does not bother me, but if I see these items listed on the menu of a "white tablecloth" establishment, I make a mental note to avoid that restaurant in the future.

                                                  1. re: Ted in Central NJ

                                                    Ted has an excellent point. Any kitchen that features those kind of items just has their food purveyor's catalog in front of them and a fryolator in the kitchen. If you want a really enlightening view, look at the http://www.sysco.com/products/food_be... link of all the stuff Sysco prepares for restaurants to heat and serve. It is not necessarily bad, but it is certainly not "chow like".

                                                    1. re: Ted in Central NJ

                                                      The exception that proves the rule, though, was a favorite joint of mine in Charlottesville that made their own fried mozzarella sticks and demonstrated, in so doing, how something done simply and well can be so good. Generally speaking, your'e right, those sorts of items are a flag. But if you end up in a small Italian or Pizza place, you might inquire about whether they make their own. I can't imagine you'd see them often but those were just delicious.

                                                      1. re: ccbweb

                                                        I've found that if something like cheese sticks is made in-house, the servers are practically falling over themselves to let customers know that or it's on the menu as "housemade such and such." I often order things that are advertised as house-made because someone cares enough to not order it from elsewhere.

                                                        If only more places actually made their onions rings from scratch...

                                                        I generally avoid pesto, unless it's lunch and there's a little on a sandwich, because there is usually too much of it and it's not so fresh. I've also eaten enough pesto at this point to permanently oil my insides.

                                                        I also avoid anything obviously out of season. I don't care if we have jets flying from all over with strawberries on board. If it is January in Minnesota, nope. Fruit jam? Okay.

                                                      2. re: Ted in Central NJ

                                                        Another exception to this:

                                                        Formaggio - Fried Cheese - robiola, anchovy, parsley rolled in panko & fried


                                                        Possibly the most amazing cheese sticks I've ever had.

                                                        1. re: Ted in Central NJ

                                                          this makes me think of when I order off of the kids menu for my son...I always ask if the chicken tenders or pizza are homemade or just the frozen ones. I tend to get him grilled cheese then, knowing it's made fresh.

                                                          I tend to ask a ton....like if mushrooms in a dish are fresh or canned, french fries are hand cut, etc... questions help me rule in or out items.

                                                          1. re: Ted in Central NJ

                                                            Eh... I never order those particular items (poppers or sticks), too little reward for the calories, but at least you know exactly what you're getting - if you really don't tr5ust the kitchen! Like I will often order chicken wings at a crappy pub because they're usually *okay* whereas the burger is probably crap, fries frozen, etc. And similarly I do often order chicken breast (sandwich or salad) when in doubt, because it's fewer calories wasted and should be relatively unprocessed.
                                                            I am talking about how to order in a worst-case scenario though, NOT how to make the most out of a fair-to-middling menu.

                                                        2. I think the best way to deciphering a menu would be on a case by case basis. Try as much as possible to research beforehand, the cuisine and the chef etc.... Information can work in your favour. There's never hard and fast rules that will work in every situation; part of chowhounding is to go beyond assumptions and generalizations.

                                                          On occasion, I would order an appetizer or two at the bar (if there's one) before a full blown meal. It gives me a chance to sample firsthand.

                                                          1. Well, it depends. Some 'won ton tuna deckers' (or whatever they've changed the name to) are my DH and my favorite item on the menu of a local restaurant in Santa Monica called Monsoon.

                                                            I'd say "50% Off Sushi" is probably one indicator of trouble. And yes there is a place in a nice area with a sign just about like that. And no, I won't go.

                                                            One definitive thing I can tell you is not to opt for the all you can eat king crab buffet at a Holiday Inn in... Wyoming!