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Feb 14, 2011 12:37 PM

Restaurants pushing a "signature dish"

I was wondering what everyone felt about restaurants pushing a signature dish to their customers?

We had dinner on Saturday night at Taranta, and the waiter was really pushing the Costoleta (pork chop) as having won "awards" and being their "signature dish". I'd been to Taranta 3 or 4 times previously (and always had a great meal) and I'd never had it, so I figured I would give it a try. The pork chop was a little overcooked, but the real issue was the sauce. They were going for the whole sweet/salty thing, but there was way too much of both to the point of almost being inedible. To me, if you're going to push something on every customer it should be perfect. Is the waiter doing the kitchen a disservice with this? Did he set unfair expectations? I'm not really sure what the answer is here. Maybe the kitchen was just having a bad night. Who knows. I just know that was the single worst thing I've ever tasted from the kitchen at Taranta.

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  1. Getting pushed a special gets my antennae up, usually has the opposite effect.

    I rarely seek server recs, nor am I often steered by them if they are offered unsolicited. I want to know about the specials (and their prices, please), but not what the server thinks is great, as that can't possibly mean much to me -- how can either of us tell if we have shared sensibilities? It's like getting advice from an online source you don't know. Now, if it's someone I have come to know and trust over many repeat visits, that might be different.

    I wouldn't consider that dish a signature of Taranta, anyway. I think of them first in terms of seafood (like the coccio), next maybe that cassava gnocchi with spicy green lamb ragu, then maybe that long retired spaghetti with bottarga and sea urchin.

    I suspect most experienced servers recognize that actively promoting certain dishes can be a minefield. It's like giving someone advice on a haircut or their love life: if it's a disaster, you get the blame even if the kitchen blundered, and if it's a hit, you may not get the credit. When I was a server and someone asked what I thought was good, I usually hedged with phrases like, "This dish is very popular", or "Many customers have praised this dish", making it someone else's recommendation, not mine.

    Some servers may not have much choice: management is pushing a particular dish because they've got too much of it or it offers attractive margins. Some places further reinforce this behavior with bounties to the server who sells the most of them in an evening.

    3 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      I agree with you regarding specials, but if I get an honest server who warns me away from a dish, I never fail to listen. I figure if they are willing to put their job on the line to criticize something from the kitchen, the dish must be truly terrible.

      1. re: MC Slim JB

        I gotta disagree with you, Slim, about not being interested in what the server thinks. When visiting a restaurant for the first time, or one that changes its menu frequently, I always ask the server what his or her favorite dishes are. And the worst response I can get is, "Oh, everything is great." I don't always follow the recommendations, but I am interested in hearing which dishes appeal to the server and why.

        1. re: MC Slim JB

          I'll ask the server their opinion if I feel like they are knowledgable about the menu- but only when I'm having an issue deciding between two dishes. I ask which one they prefer and I almost always end up with a winner in front of me. Maybe the other dish was better, but I might not ever find out.

        2. Restaurants pushing anything is irksome. A bit of selling is expected and hopefully subtle, however it is very easy to cross the line. It goes beyond just pushing signature dishes. One of the things I dislike about Craigie for example is their pushing of the tasting menu and upselling special supplements (e.g. truffle shavings).

          1. I think there's a difference between a "special" and a "specialty"...a special is often either more fresh or inventive, whereas a specialty is tried and true and served countless times a night. Each is tempting in its own way. I'm likely to order a special if I really think I'll love it [more than regular menu items] because I look at it as a fleeting opportunity. With a specialty, though, if it really is the specialty, it'll be there next time and the time after, etc, so I'll order it if I'm really craving that dish, but I'm not going to go out of my way to order it if that's not what I want. Although if it's my one and only time eating at that restaurant, I may feel more pressure to not screw up...

            1 Reply
            1. re: yanz

              I always like to get the server's thoughts on dishes especially if:

              1) The server is friendly and seems to know the menu
              2) it is a place I have never been or have limited experience with the menu
              3) I am having trouble choosing between 2 or more dishes

              I'd estimate that I end up being satisfied with the server's advice more than 90% of the time.

            2. For what it's worth, I had that dish the last time I was at Taranta and adored it. I was thinking about it for a week afterwards. I can see how it might not be everyone's cup of tea, though (for one thing, you have to have a relatively high tolerance for sweetness), and it's certainly possible that the kitchen was having an off night.

              In any case, I don't like it when a waiter aggressively pushes a dish.