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Jun 7, 2008 05:20 AM

Constantly altering menu items:a diner's right or peeve?

Have a good friend who constantly requests changes to dishes she finds on menus..."Could you possibly change the shaved parmigiana on my salad to gorgonzola?"..." I don't care for broccoli, could you let me have broccoli rabe in my pasta instead?"...and so on. It's almost an automatic knee-jerk response to anything this person sees described in a dish...Is it a diner's right to make such requests often, or is it a pain, perhaps even some type of 'phobia'...should I as her dining partner say something or just look away and take it in stride? I do care for this person...

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  1. In this day and age where many restaurants post menus online and almost all have menus hanging outside I don't understand why people will choose to go to restaurants where they can't find anything on the menu to eat as is. If the menu doesn't look good, go somewhere else. If you don't like Gorgonzola on your salad take it off. So many menus now say no substitutions or alternations and I think that their wishes should be followed.

    But I think that for medical (not phobic) reasons people should be able to make reasonable requests to alter.

    And there are those restaurants who say on the menu that they welcome substitutions/alterations. Maybe those are the restaurants that you would feel more comfortable taking your friend to.

    1. As a former restaurant owner, this has been a huge peeve.
      Simple substitutions for health or like/dislike were not a problem, however there were a large number of people who wanted to re-engineer the entire dish (ie multiple substitutions).
      There were also quite a few that wanted to take a lower cost dish and turn it into a higher priced dish (that was on the menu), and only pay the lower price.
      If you don't want/like the dish as intended by the chef, order something else.
      Sorry, rant over.

      2 Replies
      1. re: hannaone

        "There were also quite a few that wanted to take a lower cost dish and turn it into a higher priced dish (that was on the menu), and only pay the lower price."

        I think DH encountered this a lot at his family's restaurants. A lot of the customers wanted to replace shrimp for the chicken in a set combo. He would tell the customers that they would gladly do so but need to charge a different price. He told me that not one of those customers wanted to pay the price increase and agreed to the chicken.

        Gutreactions, I probably also would be totally annoyed by your friend. I generally get the food the way it is. If I ask for a modification, it would be more on the lines of getting the burger without the pickle. Bu I would just take your friend's comments in stride. None of us are perfect. And I agree with viperlush about finding a place where they welcome alterations or researching a place in advance.

        1. re: Miss Needle

          It happens a lot.
          I actually cringe when dining out and see a restaurant accede to these demands by over entitled customers. Makes it hard on those places that don't.

      2. My take is that if it's relatively straightforward and simple substitutions like the ones you give as examples and your friend is not looking to have prices lowered and/or is willing to pay a bit extra (ie, should she ask for a more expensive cheese, say) that it's fine for her to ask. Unless you're eating at the same restaurant all the time, it's not often for the restaurant that she's asking. I tend to agree with viperlush that I don't know why someone would go out to eat very often if they so often encounter things that aren't to their liking; but, so long as she's polite about it, willing to accept "no" for an answer and isn't trying to game a system but, rather, get something she likes, I don't see a huge problem.

        1. Depends. Dressing on the side is reasonable, but "Dressing on the side, no cucumbers, substitute shrimp for chicken (grilled please), no green tomatoes--only the freshest red ones........" more about the guest needing attention than a problem with the food.

          More than three substitutions (without allergies involved) its about the guest, not the food.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Le Den

            I don't want to eat at a restaurant where it's necessary to ask for ripe, rather than unripe, tomatoes.

            1. re: pikawicca

              You missed my point. The guest is making this part of their ordering ordeal without even knowing the quality of the tomotoes. Its a way of trying to elevate their importance. Its rude.

          2. My family's restaurant never did this.

            If you were allergic to something in a dish, order something else.

            If you had a problem with the sauce and wanted it on the side, order something else.

            If you did not like the vegetables (e.g. broccoli), order something else.

            And, if you've got nothing you can order, leave.

            31 Replies
            1. re: ipsedixit

              In a culture that values eating out, such as ours, it should be possible to find food for one's health and taste, and I think reasonable requests should be honored. Since restaurants don't generally offer healthfully prepared food, it up to customers to make simple requests for adjustments.

              By your rules, heart patients would have no where to go to eat, the diabetic would have to stay home, the dieter would have to prepare his/her own food for every meal.

              1. re: sueatmo

                Not really.

                When a customer comes to MY restaurant there is an implicit, if not explicit, agreement that the customer is coming to eat MY food ... not to have me cook the food the customer wants to eat.

                If the customer wants the latter, she can hire me as a private chef and I'll make whatever and however she desires.

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  I agree. I go out to a resto to eat what they cook, what their menu offers. Otherwise, I cook at home.

                  1. re: rednyellow

                    I also agree. One of the things Weight Watchers tells you is to go to a resto and order "plain chicken" with plain sides. No way man! If I'm going out, it's to eat the food the resto prepares, the way they prepare it. I do get salad dressings and other condiments on the side, but that's about it. :)

                    1. re: jujuthomas

                      Juju, you're off the mark on the Weight Watchers comment. You can eat whatever you want, but if you can't make modifications, then PORTION control is the key. I work for WW part time, and this is what I tell members--if you *have* to have fettuccine alfredo, then eat only a small portion, not the whole plate. Skip the (unneeded) bread and butter.

                      Yes, I do ask for modifications when I can--i.e, please prepare my veggies without butter--but it also depends on the restaurant. I wouldn't dream of going into a fine dining establishment and asking for those kinds of changes, because I'm there to taste that chef's cuisine. I'd just prepare myself ahead of time.

                      1. re: rednails

                        red, sorry, I have not heard that advice from my WW leader or any people who actually do work for WW - I've seen that advice a lot on the WW boards - when people are asking what to eat at different restos. This is something I would never do, I make as you say, resonable preparations for going out, and resonable mods when out. :)

                        1. re: rednails

                          I agree, my WW leader suggests selecting a healthier choice but if you choose to indulge (or have no choice), keep portion control in mind. I've heard it from other WW staff as well.

                    2. re: ipsedixit

                      Yes really. I wouldn't ask for a dish that had to be remade differently, or for ingredient substitutions that didn't fit the feel of the meal. But I do ask for no cheese or mayo, salad dressing on the side, etc. I don't see why I should not be able to do that.

                      I also ask sometimes how a dish is prepared, or what ingredients are in it. I can pass on ordering it. But it is usually very very hard to eat healthfully in most restaurants. A respectful request should be OK in most places.

                      Having said all that, if I am in a really nice restaurant (truthfully, seldom) it is a lot harder to to make requests. In that case, the meal is a splurge, and the food should be enjoyed.

                      But, don't most of us eat regularly at restaurants instead of cooking for ourselves? I simply don't view my meal at most places as being possessed by the chef or owner. I am paying for it. And truthfully, if I cannot get basic requests met in one place, I can probably get similiar fare at a place down the road, which staff would be more cooperative.

                      1. re: sueatmo

                        I actually cook for myself most of the time, so when I go to any restaurant, I am going for the food they prepare their way rather than mine.

                        1. re: hannaone

                          I think a point that sueatmo is perhaps missing is that no one is forcing a diner to eat at a particular restaurant. So, if a restaurant chooses not to accomodate a diner's request (reasonable or not) the diner has every right to just leave and go to a competitor.

                          In other words, the diner has CHOSEN to eat at that particular restaurant, and no doubt it was a conscious decision of their own volition. If one doesn't like what the restaurant is offering, or what it is willing to do to accomodate a specific request, then just leave.

                          Now, if this discussion was about a diner's request at the prison cafeteria, well then ...

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            LOL! I actually provide wedding cakes to inmates at a local "corrections facility". Those inmates are not allowed many choices at all, so mosts of their requests for their cakes are met with a firm NO. They do not have the option to go elsewhere for their cake. :-)

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              With all due respect, I am not missing the point here. There are few restaurants which serve healthy food, and far fewer that serve low fat food, which I eat when I diet. If I could "choose" a restaurant which did not slather butter over everything, or drench salads in dressing or sauce the dishes extravagantly, or fry everything edible, I would be forced to choose to stay home and cook.

                              I don't eat out alone. I eat with my husband who is also constrained by dietary matters (a heart by-pass in 2000) but who is not dieting. I generally go along with him and figure out what I might eat when I get there. I imagine there are many people who eat in friendly groups. They don't get much choice either, probably.

                              I don't think asking for dressing on the side, subsitutions for vegetables, or asking for less sauce is unreasonable. I would draw the line at trying to rewrite the house recipe, though.

                    3. re: ipsedixit

                      Geez, what a grouch! I'm diabetic, and can't eat rice or potatoes. In every restaurant that I've visited in Toronto (or Canada, for that matter), my request to substitute anything for those has never been turned down. Same thing with condiments on the side.

                      I understand that it's difficult to change main courses that may have been prepped hours earlier, and can understand a resto saying no to such requests, but to give one simple example: I like my club sandwiches with bacon, tomato, and chicken salad (not turkey). I look at the menu, and if they offer a club AND a chicken salad sandwich, I'll ask if they can make the substitution. Most places say "No problem"; others say "No". If they say "No", I don't throw a hissy fit; I order something else.

                      I never ask for more than one change to a dish; I don't think that it's unreasonable to ask. The resto can always say no. But if, for example, I ask for a hamburger with no bun, and they say "No", it's not likely I'll be coming back.

                      1. re: KevinB

                        Kevin - that chicken salad club sounds divine! I may order that next time we go to our favorite diner! :)

                        1. re: jujuthomas

                          Get extra napkins if you do - it's sloppy! (But good!!)

                        2. re: KevinB


                          It's really not about being a grouch, or rude. With our restaurant it was simply a matter of principle. If you let one person get away with even a simple substitution, then where do you draw the line?

                          Veggies instead of rice may be a simple substitution, but what about cauliflower instead of broccoli? Is that a simple substitution? Is romaine instead of iceburg acceptable and easy to do? It's so hard to say.

                          It's not that our restaurant didn't empathize with diners that had special needs, we just didn't feel the need to accomodate them.

                          Did we lost customers because of it? Sure, absolutely. Did it hurt our bottom line? Absolutely not.

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            Wow. Two points

                            1 - Jfood is allergic to nuts and many of the best salads offered in restaurants have some form of nuts (i.e. candied walnuts) placed on the dish at it's last stop before service. So if jfood did not want the nuts, your resto would not perform this simple task?
                            2 - The belief that a customer leaving does not effect the bottom line is silly. This may be true in the short term but it is a very difficult long term business model. You are reducing demand and whenthe equilibrium starts working against you, that tidal wave will be hard to stop.

                            1. re: jfood


                              Like I mentioned above, we definitely empathized with customers that had special dietary needs, but we just felt -- as a matter of business practice -- we wouldn't accomodate all of them. So, to take your example, if a customer had a nut allegery and all the salads on our menu had nuts, our position would be that you probably should choose a different category of appetizer -- e.g. a soup maybe?

                              As far as the bottom line, I'm not saying that is true as a general matter across the restaurant industry, but I can honestly say that our table turnover rate never suffered -- and if it did it didn't matter. We only had on hand so much food for the night and once we ran out, we ran out and we started turning away customers. To this day, I can only recall a handful of times when it was closing time and we had prepared food that was not ordered and sold.

                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                Thanks I. Lucky you with this current business model.

                                Just out of curiosity, what type of a restaurant do you own?

                                1. re: jfood

                                  My parents used to own a Chinese restaurant specializing in dumplings and other Northern (Beijing) specialties, like noodles, baos, buns, etc.

                                  Restaurant was sold many years ago and parents have since retired, and my time as a short order "line-cook" during summer break has (finally!) come to an end.


                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    I simply don't get your point of view. The chefs I know are in this business because they want to feed people food that they'll love. ALL of them will happily make substitutions, if possible, even the very high-end ones. My husband can't eat garlic, and we've never encountered a chef who can't accommodate his needs. If we did, we wouldn't return.

                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                      Just out of curiosity, what do you and your husband do in an ethnic restaurant where garlic is incorporated into almost every dish and can not be removed or subbed?

                                      1. re: hannaone

                                        I saw a guy in an upscale Mexican restaurant become irate, absolutely livid, when he found out that all the dishes were prepared with onions or peppers or both. He made a great show of ordering two portions of guacamole, one for his appetizer, one for his main dish, because he was so! shocked! and! angry! that the chef (and she's quite well-known) wouldn't make him a special, not-at-all-Mexican meal.

                                        There's a lot of huffing in this thread about customers having the right, nay, the responsibility, to leave a restaurant that won't give them what they want. If only those customers would have the grace to actually do so, rather than stick around and act like infants.

                                        1. re: small h

                                          I think I know your Mexican restaurant guy. He would have been the one sitting near me at kosher restaurant and angrily demanding cheddar cheese on his corned beef sandwich.

                                          WAY back when I was working in retail stereo sales, I quickly learned that there are many people out there who just arent happy unless they arent happy. They are the ones who will go into a restaurant and order something they KNOW thery cannot get just so they can go into indignant mode.

                                          1. re: Fydeaux

                                            "...people who aren't happy unless they aren't happy."

                                            Truer words have never been uttered.

                                        2. re: hannaone

                                          We have a Thai place in town that is very accommodating. Japanese is no problem. Korean, obviously, is difficult, but even there he can find a few things. Soups and salad dressing are the biggest challenges. If we call ahead, almost any place will be able to provide something tasty. In my experience, the more upscale the restaurant, the harder they will try to please.

                                        3. re: pikawicca


                                          My parents were in the restaurant business to make money.

                                          Feeding people was an unintended byproduct of that endeavor.

                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                            I don't see how feeding people could possibly be an "unintended byproduct" of operating a restaurant. By definition, that's what a restaurant does.

                                            1. re: pikawicca


                                              A food bank, by definition, feeds people.

                                              A restaurant, by definition, is a business and to be a business you need to first and foremost make money.

                                              I think something that a customer should understand is that no one is forcing that person to eat at any particular restaurant. If a customer finds the menu to be unacceptable, or unaccomodating, why not just find a different restaurant?

                                              I can see the argument that a restaurant MUST accomodate the finicky customer if that restaurant was the ONLY place to eat, but that simply is not the case.

                                              Fortunately for most of us, we reside in areas where the dining choices are generally plentiful. If restaurant A does not do what you want, then go to restaurant B.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                A food bank is a charity. A restaurant is a business. Both feed people, by definition. I've never encountered a "take it or leave it" attitude at a non-chain restaurant. Unless every table is always full,a restaurant with this approach is going to be losing customers whose business would otherwise add to the bottom line.

                                                1. re: pikawicca

                                                  pika, there was a restaurant like this person above in my home town... It was the only chinese restaurant in town and got too full of itself.. then a new place opened up a mile away, that was so friendly and accommodating, willing to do anything to make the customer happy, that soon restaurant A went out of business adn restaurant B became the most crowded restaurant in town still to this day.. seems the attitude that they are not in the business to serve people but only to "make a buck" was not a good choice.