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Are there dishes that certain restaurants should always be able to prepare even if not on the menu?

For example, I think any Italian joint should be able to whip up a spaghetti and meatballs on request, even if it's not on the menu.

Similarly, I think a Chinese restaurant should be able to ginny up a basic fried rice regardless of whether it's listed on the menu.

And I think it should be expected that a Mexican eatery would be able to make a simple beans and cheese burrito upon request.

Would those be asking too much?

What other dishes should always be available upon request, with or without mention on the menu?

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  1. Meatballs if not on the menu? I must disagree. Meatballs take a while to make, and if a restaurant doesn't serve them, how are they supposed to just whip them up on the spur of the moment should a customer request them?

    I worked in a small restaurant a while back. The chef cooked solo. Customers often asked for things not on the menu and he was unable to comply. Why? Because he had prepped everything before the restaurant opened so that when all the customers came he could turn out the food quickly enough without sacrificing cooked-to-order quality. This meant things like veggies and salad and cuts of meat were all prepped, ready to be cooked, and things like meatballs would be prepared and probably pre-cooked because meatballs don't need to be made to order.

    So if, for example, someone requested French fries (which were not on the menu), that would mean he would've had to cut and soak potatoes and then fry them, all to order, while two dozen other customers were waiting for their food.

    I think people feeling they ought to be able to get whatever they want from any sort of restaurant when they want it is part of the reason why smaller restaurants with independent owners have trouble surviving. Personally I'd rather eat what the chef has decided to cook, or, if I'm set on meatballs, I'll go to a place that makes them.

    1. "Similarly, I think a Chinese restaurant should be able to ginny up a basic fried rice regardless of whether it's listed on the menu."

      Scrambled eggs + either shrimp, basil, beef, scallions, smelt/fishlings etc etc etc :-)

      1. The whole point of a menu is to let you know what is available to eat and how much it will cost you to eat it. Why would you expect any restaurant to make something out of ingredients not otherwise listed on the menu?

        If they offered spaghetti with sausage and penne with meatballs, yes you should be able to get spaghetti with meatballs. Not sure I'd even want to eat meatballs that were "whipped up" on the fly.

        1. If not on the menu, I wouldnt necessarily expect a restaurant to make a dish available.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Harters

            I agree, I've never even thought about asking for special requests unless I've called ahead of time. It would be great if the kitchen could just "whip something up" for you, but if they do that for one they have to do it for anyone else who asks. Restaurant kitchens are taxed enough as it is, the last thing I would want to do when dining out is to throw them off their routine. Its so easy now to peruse a restaurant's web site for the menu before you dine there, if you don't like the offerings then simply choose somewhere else.

            Like someone else posted, things like meatballs take time, they shouldn't be made on the fly. Also the patron has to take into consideration the fact that in most restaurants, kitchens are very small and your special request may take up very valuable burner/prep space.

            Menus shouldn't be looked at as just a suggestion. They're the rule.

          2. My question is WHY!??!?!?!??

            menu = this is what we have. THAT simple. If it AIN'T there it ain't there! Why ask or WTF even think to ask for it?

            Unless a menu says other items by request, NO!!!!!!!!

            So asking for something not on the menu is TO MUCH to ask.

            1. My absolute favorite thing to eat out is fried oysters. If i go into a seafood restaurant and see that they serve fried clams, and also are serving raw oysters, I will ask if they would be able to do fried oysters that day. As often as not, they're glad to accommodate my request, and I'm a happy customer.

              1 Reply
              1. re: junescook

                There's no problem with inquiring if substitutions are available, most rests will accomadate if they can. Just don't think the OP's question about expectations can always be met. For those of us who've worked in commercial kitchens, we all know how difficult it is if a customer requests something that requires changing the grill temp or redoing anything that has already been prepped. Ask for it if you like, but don't be disappointed if you don't get it.

              2. I would only 'expect' a restaurant to offer a plain grilled steak or piece of fish if the menu features these things with a sauce, or salad without dressing. If they don't have mashed potatoes then they can't just make them for you or me.

                1 Reply
                1. re: smartie

                  I agree. I really only expect a restaurant to be able to serve items plain, but otherwise I don't expect any special preparations or french fries just because I happen to think they go well with steak. When I go to an American restaurant abroad, I certainly don't expect it to fit some expectation of what food it must carry like mac & cheese or fried chicken. I am not sure why I would expect restaurants here to do that.

                2. Why Can't I Get a McDonald's Hamburger at Chez Panisse?

                  1. People are making good points. I just wanted to say that at Mexican restaurants, sometimes they don't offer a vegetarian option or the vegetarian option isn't one that I would like so I ask if they can make a plain bean and cheese burrito. I'm not too particular on what kind of beans they have, pinto or black, and they have always been nice about making one for me.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Boychucker

                      Those beans may have been made with lard. I'm no veg, so it wouldn't bother me, but just so you know....

                    2. I'm intrigued by this question, not only because of the entitlement it suggests, but because of the distinctly unchowhound-like ignorance around food. Why should any Italian place or Mexican place be obliged to make a regional dish outside its remit?

                      But beyond that, this question just made me think of this:

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Lizard

                        No matter how many times I see that scene, I am **always** mortified, both for customer and Primo.

                        "She's a criminal. I want to talk to her."

                        1. re: dmd_kc

                          Ah, yes... source of the classic line, "Sometimes spaghetti likes to be alone."

                      2. Not sure this is a real question or your just joshin' us. Always worth asking, but expected, never.

                        "... think any Italian joint should be able to whip up a spaghetti and meatballs on request, even if it's not on the menu." - Totally disagree and if they can jfood wouldprobably not want to eat the golf ball shaped hamburger

                        "...Similarly, I think a Chinese restaurant should be able to ginny up a basic fried rice regardless of whether it's listed on the menu." - this one seems more reasonable but still requires ingredients that may not already be in the prep area

                        "...And I think it should be expected that a Mexican eatery would be able to make a simple beans and cheese burrito upon request." - Never having made a burrito jfood cannot comment on whether these ingredients may be avaialble but this one sounds the most reasonable.

                        "Would those be asking too much?" - Meatballs, absolutely, fried rice...maybe, burrito, can;t say.

                        "What other dishes should always be available upon request, with or without mention on the menu?" - Always - Absolutely NONE!!!

                        Now why is Italian a joint, Mexican an eatery and Chinese a restaurant?

                        Like others have stated, call ahead and ask, or ask the server but if you see any pushback from the staff please move onto items on the menu. It increases the chances of pushing the kitchen into the weeds.


                          1. This post wasn't about a sense of entitlement, or making outrageous demands.

                            Quite the contrary. It was intended to minimize hassling the restaurant.

                            Hear me out. I'm often dining out with folks who are, shall we say, less than Chowhound-worthy. But we'll go to places (when I'm choosing) that are a bit more cutting-edge or adventurous than their palates can handle, or even care to try and handle.

                            Thus, while I'll be more than happy choosing something from the menu, said dining companion is often left at wit's end as to what to order. Osso buco? No. Veal? Nope. Gnocchi? Nah. Mole? Pass.

                            So to make life easier, I was just wondering if there are certain "off-menu" items a person could order that would (i) be suitable for the most pedestrian of appetites and (ii) not be an undue burden on the kitchen staff.

                            Judging from the responses thus far ... apparently not.

                            So be it.


                            4 Replies
                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              I am not in the restaurant business but managing the product that comes in and the breadth of the menu seems to be one of the keys to profitability. If you don't believe me, just listen to that awful Ramsey fellow spout off at the hapless restaurant owners who appear on his television show.

                              Rather than trying to think of simple off menu foods that different ethnic restaurants could whip up for your insufferable dining companions I would suggest that you look at the simplest dishes on the menu and try to subtract. For example if a Mexican restaurant serves chicken mole, I would feel comfortable asking for a piece of grilled chicken without the sauce but not for a burrito. If they offer burritos with many ingredients, then yes it would be fine to ask for one with fewer ingredients.

                              Or maybe you could request a children's menu.

                              1. re: Kater

                                I was born and raised in a restaurant kitchen (not literally, but you can get the drift) ... so, yes, I totally understand the logistics of sourcing and profit margins.

                                That's sort of why I was wondering if there are certain dishes a restaurant can whip using just the basic ingredients on hand. Mexican restuarant offers chicken burrito with refried pinto beans ... too much to ask for a bean and cheese burrito? Maybe. Who knows.

                              2. re: ipsedixit

                                It's pretty easy to tell what sort of ingredients a restaurant has on hand, and what sort of preparations they do. So variations on what they already do, using ingredients already listed, should theoretically be possible. But perhaps the best approach would be either to request a specific substitute, i.e., "Can I have the steak with the bearnaise sauce instead of au poivre?"; to request something to be made without certain offending ingredients; or for the chef to suggest something that suits whatever palate.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  I don't understand why you are taking people to restaurants that probably don't serve food they would like to eat.

                                2. I felt as if op ipsedixit was sounding a bit entitled, until s/he explained the intention of the request.

                                  There are so many variables, the best advice (as a restaurateur) that I can give is paraphrased from the Bible, "ask, and ye shall receive, knock, and the door will open unto you."

                                  I've been thrilled by restaurants that go the extra mile to provide something that truly satisfies every diner. There's a seafood restaurant we frequent in New York that prepares a delightful "fish and chips" for a British friend of ours who's otherwise not fond of anything on their menu. They dip the fish in a batter made just for us; a lot of trouble in a commercial kitchen cooking for about 150 people at lunch alone.

                                  As a youth I worked for a man who ran a very fine dining restaurant -- with a game menu. When good customers came in with children, he'd make the kids the nicest hamburger platters ever; the burger was chopped steak (chopped with his chef's knife, on the fly) and the french fries were hand-cut and prepared in a skillet of oil on stovetop. Each "child" would get three burgers, a giant heap of fries, and a tomato salad. Of course, the adults would dig into their kids' meal just to have a burger -- topped with Claus's famous Bearnaise sauce!

                                  Asking for a simple, common dish is a big deal to some, but a chance to excel for others. Personally, I'm not averse to bringing out a plate of buttered spaghetti for a customer's child (or fussy relative/friend). In our Asian-themed restaurant we offer a couple of alternatives for people who just don't want to have any Asian food; they're not on the menu but people suddenly really warm up to the whole experience in a strange restaurant setting if you can assure them what they're going to eat is something they can identify with.

                                  With regard to the restaurant that was so extremely stuck-up that they refused to give me a plate of angel hair pasta marinara instead of linguine (they had both but the angel hair was offered with a bolognese); well, they're stuck-up. Will I return for the food? Sure. But I certainly won't be nearly as comfortable as I am in restaurants that are only slightly more accommodating.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: shaogo

                                    At our family's former restaruant -- a Chinese restaurant -- we would once in a while get the request for off-menu items like "sweet and sour pork" or "chop suey" or "fried rice".

                                    We'd oblige b/c we'd often have the raw ingredients on hand -- ie. pork, veggies, corn starch, rice, eggs, etc. -- and it wasn't *that* big of a deal.

                                    Did we think it was an affront on our restaurant sensibilities, or that the customers exuded a sense of entitlement? No, not really. More a sense of a disappointment that the diners wouldn't want to sample the things that we really did well, but instead wanted to "play it safe" ...

                                    1. re: shaogo

                                      I'm in the request camp. As a server, whenever costumers ask for off menu items I bring it to the kitchen's attention. Our policy is pretty strict. If the chef didn't approve the recipe in the first place, then it won't leave the kitchen. We do take ingredients out of dishes on request, but when that happens, I am instructed that the costumer cannot send the dish back for free on the theory that, it's not the way the chef intended it, and if they don't like it when its prepared the way they asked for it, not the kitchen's problem. (obviously if its like raw chicken or something they could send it back).

                                      The best policy when dining with a super picky eater is to play it safe in choosing the restaurants in the first place. Once you're at the sqeamish-friendly instution, think about what you can take out of dishes they already make- if your guest hates shellfish, it's a reasonable request to get the linguine vongole with just linguine and olive oil and basil.

                                      Restaurants only have what they have because it controls inventory costs and it keeps the flow of service functional. Changing menu items is a big hassle. Read more about my experiences with off menu item requests: http://underemployedinnyc.blogspot.co...

                                    2. I suppose I do this more than I realized. If there is a particular sauce or preparation on the menu that looks appealing to me I will often ask for it without it's meat component. If I see tofu elsewhere on the menu I will sometimes ask to sub that for the meat (especially certain schezwan and thai dishes).

                                      1. I don't expect a restaurant to be able to make, or be willing to make, any particular dishes that are not on the menu. I wouldn't feel that it's right to ask for something that's not on the menu, unless there are special circumstances.

                                        One of the special situations would be dietary restrictions. Our young-teenaged son is a vegetarian, so I sometimes look at a menu with an eye toward what can be adapted based on what's already on the menu. Similar to the bean and cheese burrito example - something that I know they have the ingredients for. I guess the fried rice would be another example.

                                        The other situation COULD be for kids. Our daughter, who's a pretty adventurous eater, sometimes has problems deciding what to eat. She can have a quiet meltdown just over which item to choose. In preparation last year for her first trip to Italy, we developed a strategy - if she didn't like anything on a menu, or couldn't decide - we would ask if the restaurant could make pasta aglio olio. That was chosen because (i) what restaurant in Italy wouldn't have pasta, olive oil and garlic; (ii) she always likes it and (iii) it's still distinctively Italian. I felt like we wouldn't be bothering the kitchen to ask if they could make this dish, because it's so easy. (As it turned out, we only had to fall back on this once.)

                                        1. I think Cantonese restaurants are arguably the most flexible of the lot, if not one of the most. And that is provided you know your way around a menu or have some knowledge of Cantonese food. Look at Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations Disappearing Manhattan episode where he eats at the basement Chinese restaurant with Chris, who ordered from the "phantom menu".

                                          Maybe not all metropolitan Cantonese restaurants stock live fresh seafood (but you can always ask). But a dish like vegetables stir fried with beef (with the veg being choy sum, other chinese greens) is not an impossible dish to do on the fly (specifically for non dim sum Cantonese restaurants). Or a variant like oyster sauce stir fried beef (an excellent taste tester dish too). Or double mushroom stir fried chicken, whether any or all of these items are on the menu or not. Or even prawns with scrambled egg, perhaps salt and pepper pork spare ribs. Or tofu stir fried with beef...or tomato with beef.

                                          Most of the time seasonal vegetables are not listed on the menu, but all Cantonese diners know to ask what veg the restaurant has today. Upon selecting the veg, the next step is how you want it done. This applies even to dim sum seafood restaurants, but they may be less flexible with an on the fly custom order (depending on what it is...e.g. they might not do beef chow fun at night, but you can always ask).

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: K K

                                            My youngest child is from Guanzho (Formerly known as Canton). When we dine in old style Cantonese Chinese-American restaurants, she is always offered the 'other menu' choices. BUT, she doesn't speak any Chinese, having come to the USA at 3 months of age. My wife and I listen to the offerings, and avail ourselves of these items.
                                            If I go into an old school ethnic restaurant, I always ask if they have a separate set of selections for their countrymen. I've gotten to try many great things that never appear on the standard menu.

                                            I also regularky have to ask for changes in preparations att restaurants, as I am allergic to mustard. This leaves out almost all vinegarette drfessings, and in many places, no lamb, due to the mustard crust.

                                          2. No.

                                            Especially no on the meatballs thing.

                                            1. I can only think of one instance in which I've ever asked a restaurant to accomodate an "off-menu" request: When our son was a toddler he was going through a picky stage. We were in a hotel restaurant (where we were staying) but I don't recall that we were provided with a children's menu. We looked at the regular menu, saw that there was an appetizer of pasta (I think Angel hair) with some sort of seafood, and asked if they could just prepare him a plate of plain, buttered pasta. They accomodated us very graciously, and billed the meal as a "baked potato" -- presumably because the computerized system would not have allowed them to enter a non-menu item and they were gracious enough not to charge us at the appetizer price, which was high because of the seafood.

                                              Moral: We asked for something for which it was evident that they had the ingredients, based on the menu, and that could be prepared without any sort of special preparation (such as meatballs). Also, this was a hotel restaurant, where I think there may be more flexibility, especially for hotel guests.

                                              1. I think you painted yourself into a corner with the word 'always'. From your own experience in restaurants you know that there probably ARE some things they could make for you off the menu, but the question is really whether or not they "always should".

                                                In my opinion the answer is 100% up to the restaurant. I see absolutely no harm in asking, especially if you give the kind of reason you suggested (where some in the party are less adventuresome). But I also believe that the answer is 100% up to the restaurant.

                                                It would seem to be a simple matter of good business for a restaurant to accommodate you when it can do so without sacrificing quality or service (especially to other diners), but I think it's totally their decision.

                                                1. imho, no off-menu dishes should <<always be available upon request>> unless the diner has made special advance arrangements with the restaurant.

                                                  in other words, imho, YES that would be asking too much.

                                                  1. Echoing what's already been said, I think it's hard to expect a restaurant to be able to serve dishes that are off menu, because they may not have the ingredients or flexibility to do so. At the most, I'd expect that they might be able to offer a plain carb (like pasta with oil, plain rice) if it's on the menu somewhere as an accompaniment to a main (so no fries unless it's clear they do them), or a plain vegetable dish. And if there wasn't anything on the menu that was veggie, I might suggest what I could eat (i.e. could you do me the roasted veg from app X with some pasta) rather than just expecting the kitchen to surprise me. But ultimately, if I want to be that choosy about what I eat, I stay in and cook!

                                                    1. Ordering off menu is a great part of eating out. You can't do it everywhere, but I'm so sorry that the folks on this thread are missing out.

                                                      It happens at Chinese restaurants frequently. Certainly this will be the case with a simple sauteed green vegetable like baby bok choy or water spinach. Whatever is fresh. Sometimes I'll point to something delicious looking at another table, and I find out it's not on the menu, no wall special, nothing.

                                                      I remember once I was at a Chinese restaurant suggested by a friend, so I called her after being seated and asked what I should order. She said she couldn't tell me, because she orders after talking with the manager and they make it for her. I was also at a Yemeni restaurant and asked if they make anything special that's not on the menu. She said they regularly have a whole fish preparation. (I assume it's not on the menu because they don't always have the whole fish.) Again, it is completely unadvertised, but the regular customers may very well know. This happens to me frequently if I just ask.

                                                      And in the most famous example, Tujague's restaurant in New Orleans, which is certainly the oldest restaurant in the Big Easy (or maybe anywhere in the US?), regularly makes some dishes like the chicken bonne femme and an antipasto salad off menu.

                                                      In theory it's how the cobb salad and buffalo wings were invented.

                                                      I'm not saying you should be angry if a restaurant doesn't have items not listed on the menu, but if you just ask, you may be surprised at what you find.

                                                      4 Replies
                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                        Exactly. However it goes a little bit of both ways. It helps of course that 1) you know what the restaurant's capabilities are (as well as limitations) 2) you already have some sort of rapport with the waitstaff and owners (or you go with someone who does) and 3) you already know the restaurant's cuisine as well as a good working/general knowledge of the food culture and/or can speak the restaurant owner's native language to some degree.. Very common in most Cantonese Chinese restaurants.

                                                        1. re: K K

                                                          In my experience in Taipei, you were expected to look at the menu and to discuss your options with the waiter/waitress, what was fresh, in season, etc., not just to order X from the menu.

                                                          1. re: buttertart

                                                            Yeah that is very true not just in Taipei but other parts of Taiwan, especially if it is a roadside resort/vistor area type seafood restaurant. Before you go inside, you can basically pick and choose your seafood from the tanks, meat (e.g. smoked goose), and fresh vegetables, whether it is on display (with or without signage). You inquire, they tell you the price by weight, and offer options (like you say) how you want them cooked. For example...prawns are so fresh and delicious, sashimi is already a given option. Some of the tourist places like Chuen Kee in Hong Kong (Sai Kung) operate in a similar manner (or you bring your seafood catch/from the fishermen off the boats and have the restaurant cook it for you for a price).

                                                            Of course this is all within reason of doing something not listed on the menu, simply because every food provider in that region/country operates like that where versatility and choices are integral to the whole experience.

                                                            1. re: K K

                                                              Yes, it's delightful, isn't it!

                                                      2. Growing up, we ate out at very nice places on a regular basis, and I think that as a result, I'm far more comfortable asking politely if certainly accomodations can be made, but I generally stick to substitutions instead of going completely off the menu, and I do take in account the quality of the restaurant.

                                                        My older sister used to have a picky eater as a friend who always ordered an egg salad sandwich. Though it surprised and amused the wait staff (and likely the chefs), I can't remember when they didn't whip one up for her.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: Mestralle

                                                          Reminds me of a business trip in Amsterdam some years ago. One of my colleagues was a Texan who was, shall we say, rather set in his ways. I had taken a group of people to my favorite French bistro there and he wanted iced tea. They had barely heard of it but ten minutes later showed up with a whole pitcher full, fresh brewed just for him.

                                                        2. I do think there are restaurants that can accommodate such special requests, but I certainly wouldn't expect any restaurant to do so. I would call ahead to ask about a particular dish, because you never really know the size of the kitchen, how much staff, their pantry and cooler/freezer, etc. Asking on the fly is okay at some places, but I'd be prepared for disappointment. I also wouldn't always expect the kitchen to accommodate even if they've done so before, either, especially if it's a busy night. So, the whole "always" issue is a problem for me. If you know one in your party is likely to do this, choose your restaurant carefully, and try to call ahead, would be my advice, even if it's only fifteen minutes notice.

                                                          I'm thinking back to times I've ordered or someone I was with has ordered an off menu item. One time I was at an izakaya and knew tori zosui was on the dinner menu, so asked for it at lunch on a particularly slow, rainy afternoon. The server asked the cook and the she graciously accommodated my simple request. (Tori zosui is basically chicken and rice soup.)

                                                          Another time, my mom asked for a salad that wasn't on the menu. Again, very simple--lettuce, avocado, radishes, celery, peppers--all elements of other dishes on the menu, with olive oil and vinegar, and a baked potato, which was on the menu. But, bear in mind, she asked politely, knowing it was a special request that could be denied. I certainly wouldn't go into a place fully expecting that such requests should always be honored.

                                                          1. I think that one of the problems is the term "expect". I think that you can ASK that special accomodations be made, but to EXPECT them to be unhesitantly filled is wrong. No restaurant is required to make anything not offered on their menu.
                                                            Speaking of menus, most places post their menus on the web and/or you can pick up a to-go menu on one of your visits, or before you enter the place, check the menu posted on the window or on the placard outside the restaurant. Have your friends read the menu and see if they're willing to eat what's there. If they must have meatballs (which cannot be "whipped up") and no meatball dish is offered, don't go there.

                                                            1. Remember that story with Marco Pierre White charging $50 for a plate for fries?

                                                              A place I worked at basically took this idea. Sometimes we would get snooty customers who apparently have the idea that ordering special items make them special. No it's not because of dietary restriction. No it's not even because they're picky eater that are particular about their food. They <b>just</b> want things off-menu for the sake of it.

                                                              Sure, you'd have to pay for it. What's that? Someone asked for Proscuitto wrapped asparagus with a poached egg on top? Sure we have those ingredients, tell them it's $60. Those who're just doing this to impress whoever they're eating with would be too embarrassed to say no.

                                                              So yes, pretty much agreeing with what everyone said. It is unreasonable to have these expectations, and be prepared to pay unreasonable prices for it.

                                                              1. As an adult customer I would never dream of requesting something that wasn't on the menu unless the owbers/operators were friends, and I was very familiar with what was on hand & what goes on in the kitchen.
                                                                But just about any restaurant (except asian!) should be able to whip up a spin on a grilled cheese sandwich for a picky kid.