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"No Substitutions"

Please help settle a debate 'round here:

Sometimes you'll see a menu with the disclaimer "No Substitutions". I take this to mean that you cannot ask to remove an ingredient from a dish and add another in its place (such as substituting turkey for ham in a sandwich). However, someone recently suggested to me that it also means "No Modifications" to a dish - so no asking to "hold the mustard" or "dressing on the side" or so forth. Ideas?

Nothing's riding on the debate, just curious. Thanks!

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  1. Terroni, a small chain of restaurants in Toronto (with an outpost in Los Angeles) has a draconian "no substitutions" policy which follows your second definition. They literally will not make a single modification to any dish they serve. They will not leave something off, they will not put something on the side. The ostensible rationale is that these are authentic Italian recipes and the chef wants people to experience them as they were intended. It is amusing or irritating, depending on your point of view. However, they are always lined up out the door, so the policy doesn't seem to be hurting their business at all.

    1 Reply
    1. re: TorontoJo

      I'm a huge fan of Terroni's too and while I do understand why they do not allow substitutions, I think they need to be a little flexible depending on the situation. I don't have any allergies but a pregnant friend of mine when to eat there and she wanted pizza but she's lactose intolerant and they refused to leave the cheese off of the pizza.

      I work in a restaurant that is really flexible and will pretty much prepare a meal anyway requested but it does get very frustrating for service/kitchen staff when a guest modifies a meal to the point that it's something completely different than what's on the meal. Everyone is entitled to their likes and dislikes but IMHO if you don't like the menu that a restaurant has to offer, go find one that does. If you're invited out as part of a big group, check to see if the menu is posted online. Most places are happy to prepare something that's not on their regular menu if you call ahead.

    2. I would think that "No Substitutions" would mean that if (as an example) a customer wanted to "substitute" risotto instead of the potatoes to come along with their filet...then that wouldn't be allowed. It shouldn't mean no modifications - modify meaning "no olives" or "dressing on side" and so on.

      1. When I worked at the original Buca di Beppo years ago they had a no substitutions policy that meant no modifications unless there was a food allery issue. Their rational was that the restaurant was so busy that with 50 or 60 tickets hanging in the kitchen it became impossible to keep track of substitutions and mistakes would occur because of them. I understood their thinking but I think people should be able to get what they want when they go out to eat.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Somnifor

          I understand the reasons for a no substitutions policy, but when it is carried to an extreme it is a real turn-off.

          Recently, I went to a small, family-run Italian restaurant. The place was not particularly busy at the time. I wanted roast chicken, which came with broccoli rabe (which I detest). I asked if they could substitute any other vegetable for the broccoli rabe (there were a number of other vegetables, including broccoli rabe listed as side dishes, all at the same price). The waiter said, "No substitutions." I said, OK, could you just leave the broccoli rabe off my plate because I don't like it. The waiter said he couldn't do this-- that the chef always served the chicken with broccoli rabe. So I ended up ordering something else, even though I wanted chicken, just to keep the broccoli rabe off my plate. I found that ridiculous, and I won't go back to that restaurant even though the food is good. There should be some consideration for the customer's food preferences.

          1. re: Shawn

            Shawn, that's a ridiculous reaction on the restaurant's part.

            You should have done a 'Jack Nicholson' on them.

            I wouldn't go back either.

        2. "No substitutions" is often done because of food cost. We have an appetizer sampler platter where I work, and people will often as to leave something relatively inexpensive off of it while replacing it with something expensive like calamari.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Al_Pal

            Al Pal, I can understand your explanation, but are there SERiously places that won't allow a salad dressing to be brought on the side? And they get repeat customers? Amazing.

          2. I think there are a lot of reasons why you've got "No Substitutions." One is cost and time (which eventually comes down to cost). DH used to wait at his parents' Chinese restaurants and said a lot of people would want to substitute shrimp fried rice for the roast pork fried rice that came with the lunch specials or would want shrimp with broccoli instead of chicken and broccoli. He would say sure but it would cost them more. Then the customers would say never mind. Not only does shrimp cost more than pork or broccoli, but the roast pork fried rice for lunch specials were made ahead of time and would cause the workers to expend more energy and time drumming up some fresh shrimp fried rice.

            And then the whole no modifications thing -- it definitely slows up the ordering and cooking process when you've got to make a sandwich without the mustard, etc.

            That said, to me when I see "No subs" I think as you do -- not substituting one ingredient for something else. I find the no modification thing a bit too extreme. But as it is their business, it's their prerogative to do so. And customers can decide whether they want to go there or not.

            1. dunno...the "no substitutions" rule makes me somewhat suspicious that the place is using premade stuff that could be packaged ahead of time (like that "seafood" mix that you see on pizzas etc sometimes, or ready made salads)

              I also get a kick out of places that refuse to, for example, switch shrimp for chicken, even when they have shrimp skewers or what not on the menu AND you offer to pay the extra.

              A favorite "special" restaurant we'd often go to on birthdays and what not (when we could afford it) would start their service with the offer to take into consideration food allergies, or any requested substitution "with pleasure". I never used the request (my sister did once or twice due to her food allergies)...but the offer always made me feel well taken care of in that place.

              And as for the poster who stated that people regularly request to substitute more expensive items like calamari for something on an appetizer platter, i have requested the opposite of this scenario several times (ex something else for chicken fingers cuz i don't eat meat)...and i get a filler like fries or onion rings instead...it's not like i get charged less. I also substitute, when i can, any dressing for the personally hateful raspberry vinaigrette i see everywhere...on what otherwise sounds like a fantastic salad.

              I regularly order any "bacon bits" on the side of any salad after countless debates and explations with wait staff who failed to understand that just because it's teeny, doesn't mean it's not real bacon ( I can only eat the soy )

              Yes, it would be reasonable to request a meat lasagna be meatless....but substituting onion rings for fries or a caesar for a greek salad...should not be a big deal, nor should either of the aformentioned switches cost more than the other.

              1. No substitutions means you can't replace something in/on the dish with something else. No modifications means you can't change anything, substitution or not.

                If any restaurant said "no cheese" is a substitution they should just learn english.

                1. We were in Reno recently for an event and decided to try Charlie Palmer Steak. The menu did not indicate "no substitutions" or "no modifications" but when asked if the potato gratin could be made without onions, we were told no, and it was suggested to us that we should order another side dish. That, in combination with the underwhelming steaks (ribeye & filet) make CP Steak a restaurant we will not be returning to.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: SanJoseHound

                    I think that in this case, they couldn't modify it because the potato gratin is probably premade.

                  2. At a restaurant we had dinner at on Saturday I had what was called on the menu, "In the Hands of the Chef"... described as, "For adventurous "foodies": no limitations, no substitutions, No complaining!" I took it as a clever way to get the message across. The salad was delicious, BTW.