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Jan 29, 2008 08:30 AM

Specials [split from Ontario board]

(Note: this thread was split from the Ontario board at: -- The Chowhound Team).

I'm finding more and more restaurants in TO are offering specials that cost considerably more than the regular mains, and most of the servers in the GTA fail to mention the cost unless asked point-blank. In upscale surroundings, sometimes it's a little intimidating/embarrassing to ask for the price, when one wonders if others will consider it to sound cheap to be asking.

I had this happen most recently at Ferrovia, on Leslie, where the server failed to mention the price of the lamb & polenta special, which we later found out was steep compared to other items on the menu.

PS kawarthagirl, you're right, embarrassing is a better word...

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  1. I don't find it intimidating but it could be embarrassing... What if you were taking out a friend and you have to ask? You sound cheap... Or a business colleague? It's just as stupid as that ancient practice of bringing out the huge pepper shaker and offering to pepper your food before you've even tasted it!

    1 Reply
    1. re: kawarthagirl

      I'm glad that you mentioned the pepper grinder! It's always bothered me that some people expect my staff to offer them pepper before they've had a chance to tast their meal. Same
      as in Italian restaurants when some customers act like the
      waiter isn't doing him job if he doesn't offer them cheese with
      their seafood pasta!

    2. In reference to the term "special" - I've been running restaurants in Toronto for longer than I care to remember (touchy about my age perhaps?), and the whole point of having a special is that it's, well, SPECIAL.
      Different from the regular offerings and most times a bit more expensive. It's never been my intention to "gouge" people or "pull one over" on them. Some menus don't change that often, so it's always nice to have other items on offer that might appeal to the regulars who are already familiar with the menu itself. That being said, I've never been a big fan of special recitation - if your're like me, you stop listening afther the first few words & have no idea what the specials are once the waiter leaves the table. I've always been a big proponent of a specials board or a seperate specials card that arrives with the regular menu & one that includes prices.

      21 Replies
      1. re: james

        I have a set societal expectation where if I see or hear the word "Special" at a restaurant, my brain thinks "Ooo! I can save money if this sounds good!" If the term used is "Featured Item", then I stop and think about it.

        And really, restaurants that DON'T have prices readily handy for the diner to see when they have items not on the menu? That's really backhanded.

        1. re: james

          I agree with you james. Until I read this thread I had never heard of the idea that the "special" on a menu meant a lower price. It has always meant that those menu items were made specially for that day. Perhaps depending on what kind of restaurant, but I've always maintained your best bet is order one of the specials because it's been made fresh for that day, with fresh ingredients, etc., which may possibly result in a higher price point.

          1. re: JamieK

            I have never felt like I was being gouged with the 'Special' - it's true that it's likely to be the freshest item with an interesting twist - I just don't want to have to ask how much. It makes me feel like a penny pinching geezer and I'm only 35 ;)

            We actually had another first the other day - we were at Milestone's off the 401 (Pickering) and the hostess pointed out, on the way to our table, where the rest rooms was. I thought that was GREAT! They weren't obvious so it would have necessitated hubby or I asking someone... this way, we didn't have to. It's all about comfort for the customer.

            The pepper grinding / cheese sprinkling phenomenon seems to be going the way of the dodo bird. I get it a lot less. But when I do get it, it bugs me so much I make the waiter / ess stand there until I have tasted my food to see if I want some... Yikes... I'll probably get flamed from waiters Toronto wide for that, but... what can I say? :)

            1. re: kawarthagirl

              Would it kill these places to simply put a pepper grinder on each table? Are they concerned that such an item is pocket-sized?

              With parmesan, it's kind of a no win situation for the server. They don't bring it you hate having to ask, they do bring it you hate feeling rushed. I guess I'm saying we could all be a little patient since parmesan must be added post-cooking to get the most out of it.

              As for bathroom navigation the only way to point someone in the direction of the loo is to not point. A gentle head nod usually does the trick and is far more discreet. Unless you're dining in a Monty Pythonesque labyrinth. Then you're kinda beat.

              1. re: Googs

                Would it kill these places to simply put a pepper grinder on each table? Are they concerned that such an item is pocket-sized?

                Yes, the concern is theft and experience has shown that if it's not nailed down there is a fair chance it will be stolen.

                1. re: kawarthagirl

                  Thanks for the review KG.
                  I'm with James and Jamie on this one. I would not assume the 'special' is of a lower price, or the deal of the night. In my mind it's something that has caught the chef's eye at the 'market' so to speak or perhaps something seasonal and he/she has in turn created a particular dish off the menu around this item.

                  1. re: millygirl

                    Well, my mom did. So maybe it's a generational thing but if you say 'special' to her, she hears 'discount'. And she's not alone in this. So whent the bill came, it was a rude surprise! Even I was surprised that it was that much more than the average main. It's not very much for a restaurant to print a little sheet with the items and prices or to recite the price with the item... What's the reason for not telling people, when the list the prices for all the other items on the regular menu? Imagine if we had to ask for everything on the menu as well! Are they afraid we'll get sticker shock?

                    1. re: kawarthagirl

                      Maybe it really is generational - I'm no spring chicken, and to me the word "special" connotes a lower price! So a Special dish, to me, would cost less. In my mind, the restaurant is offering a fine dish at a discount to allow people who wouldn't ordinarily try it, order it and hopefully love it. So that I would order it again at it's regular (higher) price. To me, Special = Savings.

                2. re: JamieK

                  ..I thought the same JK (& j)...though disclosing the cost should be mandatory since it could be much more expensive depending on those "special" ingredients...

                3. re: james

                  Hi James,
                  This thread is going off-topic - so the reply is to you rather than kawarthagirl as you've identified the issue from a managers perspective.

                  My suspicion has been that 'many' "specials" are yesterday's leftovers, recycled to save on food costs (have no issue with this - restaurateurs are entitled to make a profit). So I am "expecting" a fairly good price. Note the use of the word "expecting". If I get surprised when the bill arrives (regardless of whether this was a 'good deal' or not) then the restaurateur has a problem now. I may not return. For example, my $45 steak at The Senator, when all other menu items were under $25 (this was many years back - more than 10 for sure) meant I NEVER went back - and told many friends what happened. I don't think I was the loser here.
                  I also recall another occasion - more recent as you will tell from the restaurant - at Across The Street. There I asked the price of the first 'special' (when it wasn't given) and was told. Then I had to ask the price of the second 'special'. Then the third, then the fourth. Surely after the first time, the server should have been savvy enough to include the prices. Of course, by this time an antagonistic relationship was developing, and I asked why he didn't tell the prices. The response was that "most people don't like being told the prices". (ASIDE: In which case why put prices on the menu?).
                  Again - I've never been back.
                  I can totally accept that if a fresh ingredient is available then a creative chef can potentially produce food that's way better than the everyday menu - and I applaud that. But please tell me first - the worst that can happen is that I order something else. The alternative has so many downside possibilities that I just don't see where the restaurant can possibly 'win'.

                  1. re: estufarian

                    To ask the price of Special Number One - fine. To have to ask the price of Specials # 2, 3 & 4??? No way, Jose! The waiter should have caught on that you DID want to know the price before ordering it!

                    I really appreciate a blackboard with specials described nicely, and the price plainly marked. Just like in the menu. Then I can make an iformed decision!

                  2. re: james

                    I recall a huge thread a few months ago here on CH about this topic, and a lot of servers stated that they were explicitly ordered to do the recitation and no prices as a practice to try to basically snooker people into feeling embarrassed to ask and thus just go ahead and order it.

                    Personally, I never order a special if I don't know the price - just like I don't go out and buy the fanciest car in the world, but rather make a value judgement based on both the car *and* the price - I do the same with what I'm eating.

                    1. re: jgg13

                      i think i recall the same thread, and that many servers didn't recite prices of specials unless they were notably more expensive than the normal range of mains, say 20% more, because enough of their customers took offense at the prices that it was the restaurant's policy.

                      i thought the main consensus on that thread was that the patron should feel free to ask about price if it's of any concern, or ask the server to include the price when listing all of the specials--basically give the server a cue on communication re: price. i guess i fail to see how a patron gets "snookered," it's called a special because it's special, same connotation as "market price" on a seafood main-- if you need to ask, ask. at most restaurants where customers have a price point in mind there is a specials board with price, fair & square; in most cases with unprinted specials, we're talking about higher end fine dining where many diners may take offense at their server daring to drop prices in front of their guests/employer/ee or clients.

                      i suppose restaurants could also run a couple of menu items as "super-deep discounted food we had the barback whip up out of leftovers, now 35% off!!!" & print them on fluorescent yellow cards stapled to the wine list. these menu items might be unpopular, but at least there would be no confusion over price & quality.

                      1. re: soupkitten

                        If you took offense at seeing prices, wouldnt the numbers on the menu (for all the other dishes) offend you? most restaurants, even fancy ones still list prices for their regualr dishes (there are some excpetions but those are certainly not the norm)

                        1. re: jes

                          wasn't talking about *seeing* prices, was talking about the server dropping the prices verbally at the table, which many diners do find rude-- imagine the following:

                          patron: "i'd like a sapphire martini, up, please."
                          server: "that will cost you $12.50, you know."

                          very rude of the server, yes? i think most chowhounds would be up in arms. many diners in high end places have the same reaction to the prices of specials being verbally listed in front of their guests, "as if i/we can't afford it," or "as if price is important this evening." since the server is not a mind reader, s/he tries to do the least offensive thing, trusting that the patron will ask for pricing information, or any other element of service, as it is required.

                          1. re: soupkitten

                            Agree with everything you state S.

                            But the whole idea of verbal-only specials is something that irks jfood to no end. If jfood is paying $40+ per entree, the restaurant can find a sheet of paper to print the specials.

                            Yes he rememebrs the "there are only a certain number and how to keep it up to date." Two weeks ago at a $35-45 entree restaurant the written special menu had four entree specials. The server was great when he said,"before you get your heart set on any of the specials, we can no longer offer the A, B & C."

                            Until such time as the restaurant gets with this process, the little birdy saying "could be a gotcha" is still sitting on jfood's shoulder.

                        2. re: soupkitten

                          As you see in this and other threads though, sometimes "special" implies "discount" to folks.

                          1. re: jgg13

                            i agree that there is some confusion and it does get wacky-- that's why many restaurateurs prefer to use "features" or some such rather than the word special, or "main" rather than "entree"--to cut down on confusion. i do think it's part of being an educated diner though, if i'm eating an "entree" in france or the uk i don't assume it's going to be a main course of seafood for the equivalent of $9; if i'm eating a "special" at alinea i don't assume it will cost less than the most expensive listed menu item, or that it's really the super-secret blue plate special for $8.50.

                            in any event it's the diner's responsibility to ask for the price if it is important, because the restaurateur, chef, & server have no control over the patron's individual interpretation of the word "special."

                            1. re: soupkitten

                              Again, do agree that it is up to the diner to ask for the price if it matters to them (it usually does for me). If they're too embarassed to do that, well, they get what they deserve.

                              That being said, I prefer to just have a printed list w/ the prices, but most of that is the bit mentioned in this thread about how it is hard to hear all of the specials to begin with.

                      2. re: james

                        james, those are wise, wise words, and ones that I wish more restaurateurs took to heart. The price is not the issue, knowing what the specials are is the issue. I have a brain like a sieve, and by the time they're to the end of the special entrees I've forgotten what the soup du jour is. Give me a sheet of paper with the specials listed, put the prices on it, and everyone is happy.

                      3. Maybe it also depends on the price point of the restaurant. I tend to go for the sub $20 places, and if the chef there tried to sell me a $40 "special", I would be looking for the manager immediately and crossing that restaurant off my list of places to visit.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Pincus

                          Very good point pincus, I agree.

                        2. There have been many threads about the price of "specials" and whether the restaurant should post them plus the price.

                          Jfood is of the firm belief that EVERY restaurant owes it to the customers to provide written descriptions and prices. Whether this is done with a chalkboard, a print out or a hand written slip of paper that is left at the table, the whole idea of "you guess" the price is not customer focussed.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: jfood

                            Agreed. I wish that all restaurants should post their menus WITH PRICES in front of their restaurant. I am really tired of surprises.