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Sep 30, 2013 05:16 AM

Advice Wanted For Ordering Fish In A Restaurant


I think I can use some advice when it comes to the task of ordering fish in a restaurant with the best possible results.

I know the best bet is to order fish at a seafood restaurant with a good reputation for serving fresh fish, especially if it is located right on the water. My concern is with ordering fish located at a typical restaurant located at Anytown, USA.

Case in point: Last week I went to an Italian restaurant which many local diners have been raving about. When the waiter described his list of specials, he mentioned one which began with "We're doing a grouper with..............etc." I forget the rest. In any event, I ordered it, for the plain and simple reason that I was in the mood for some fish.

I had made the assumption that the grouper would be fresh and taste fresh, simply because the waiter mentioned it as one of their evening specials. Apparently, my assumption was faulty. As it turned out, the grouper had that "frozen" taste.

In the future, whenever a waiter mentions some type of fish as one of their specials, would it be too "forward" for me to ask some of the following questions:

1) What date was the fish caught?
2) How long has the fish been stored in the refrigerator?
3) Was the fish frozen before becoming refrigerated, and if so, how long was it frozen?

It seems to me that asking such questions might have the effect of inviting a dishonest answer for the purpose of making a sale.

Based upon a previous Chowhound discussion on the subject fresh fish, there seemed to be a concensus of opinion that a freshly caught fish does not "keep" in the refrigerator longer than 2 or 3 days, and that fish should not be frozen for longer than a week.

I also had the recent experience of ordering another piece of fish at another restaurant that was described as follows: "New Zealand Whole Snapper with Onion Marmelade and Preserved Lemon. Flown In Fresh From New Zealand."

This was the 3rd day this fish special was on. Based upon the 3-day advice for freshness I had read earlier, I decided to take my chances and try it. It tasted okay while I was eating it. But afterwards, my fingers smelled "fishy" and I detected "fish breath" after I got home.

It had been several years ago since I last tried a whole fish special and I do not recall these "fishy" effects. Would you consider this a reliable indication that my New Zealand Snapper was eaten beyond the desired time limit for freshness?

When you order a fish special at a restaurant, one whose reputation for seafood dishes is uncertain to you, what standards are you looking for? What questions, if any, do you ask?

Any comments and feedback on the above would be deeply appreciated.

Thanks in advance.


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  1. If you can find a place that can answer those 3 questions without "fudging" it, let me know

    6 Replies
    1. re: mrbigshotno.1

      Where to begin. The waiter isn't going to tell you anything. He/she won't have a clue how old the fish is. If it's frozen not even the chef would necessarily know.
      The 'fishy' smell comes from a gas on the skin that begins developing the second the fish dies. It's to attract bacteria that will 'rot' the fish. Anyway.
      Any restaurant serving pre-frozen fish will dip the fish in some sort of mild acidic bath which removes/neutralizes the gas. At least they ought to.
      'Fresh fish' can be easily a week old by the time it gets to your plate.
      There are some foods like seafood that not every 'Anytown' can expect to get seriously fresh. That's just the way it is.
      Same with say getting 'fresh' asparagus from Mexico in Alaska that's been in a refrigerated trailer for a week.

      1. re: Puffin3

        An advantage enjoyed in coastal Mexico areas but not in the US is that it is perfectly acceptable to ask to see the fish before you order one. Any reputable restaurant is proud to exhibit the freshness of their catch, and you can often choose from among different sizes on a large tray.
        In the US, more than 20% of "grouper" sold is not even grouper, so what else will they deceive you about? As Puffin notes, the server is unlikely to be able to provide accurate answers. I advise ordering fish dishes only in restaurants with solid reputations. I am fortunate to be living in coastal Florida now, and I know there the good stuff is.

        1. re: Veggo

          Good advice, Veggo.
          This makes me think of Jamaica - selecting your fish on the beach and watching it be cleaned and cooked, along with fry bread (bammy). Heavenly.

          1. re: Veggo

            The same is true with snapper, if your paying 10-15 dollars for a dish it's certainly not Gulf red snapper. I also would never order it with pasta. It's a good stand alone dish. No pasta.

          2. re: Puffin3

            Hello Puffin3,

            Many thanks for the information on the origin and cause of the "fishy" smell from fish and how to neutralize the gas. I didn't know this. Good information.


            1. re: Puffin3

              Ordering/buying fish is another example of "know your food source". As I have mentioned on some CH subjects before, I spend many hours, miles, extra expense, etc. seeking out local humanely raised beef, pork poultry from very small farmers, and a few "backyard" hobby farmers.
              The taste and texture is very good and one knows what and how it was fed and raised.
              Like Veggo, I live on an Island in Florida, and there are numerous "day boat" commercial fishermen who provide opportunities to purchase local fresly caught seafood.

          3. This pertains only to the three questions you asked:
            It's going to be hard, if not impossible, to date that fish unless you are at a place that receives directly from the person who caught it (whether by line or net; makes no difference.) Fishing boats do not generally go out on daytrips (at least, not for commercial sales.) Consider that a fish caught Sunday will be iced down 'til their return trip, which is anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, seriously. It's totally permissible to ask about length of storage, and the method, but you may not get a strictly correct answer. Your best bet is just to ask if it's been frozen AT ALL, because some places (though not high-end spots, usually) will tell you that it's fresh, but what they mean is, "frozen, but thawed now," or, ask how long the kitchen itself has stored it, but kitchen storage doesn't account for the time it spent on the boat.

            11 Replies
            1. re: mamachef

              Hello Mamachef,

              Many thanks for the information on how fishing boats operate and how long an allegedly "fresh" fish can be stored on a boat. It's good to know that "fresh" means "once frozen but now thawed in many restaurants. Based upon your information, I think I will simply ask if the fish has been frozen "at all." Thanks again.


              1. re: PontiusPalate

                The most honest answer you may get is " I don't know" . So have a plan "B".

              2. re: mamachef

                the majority of the fish served in the US has been previously frozen.
                some types of sushi require that the fish be flash frozen to kill parasites
                all the fish that is caught by those huge factory ships that use purse seine nets to scoop up virtually everything in their path from the ocean floor on up are frozen on the ship for the weeks at sea that the fish will spend on the ship.
                all the fish that we get from thai fish farms (after having eaten god-knows-what) are frozen.

                and on and on and on.

                it would be safe to assume that any fish that will be provided to you
                << ordering fish located at a typical restaurant located at Anytown, USA>>
                will have been frozen for some unknown and unknowable amount of time.
                whether or not the freezing technique was good or not will probably be unknown.
                exactly what the fish REALLY is, will be questionable (many types of white fish are substituted for each other indiscriminately based on price)

                how much time the fish spent after thawing but before preparation is probably more of a knowable thing, but really, how many typical restaurants located at Anytown, USA track that AND would be honest in telling that info to the patron?

                1. re: westsidegal

                  Thanks, westsidegal. Not sure why this is directed to me? I purposely avoided any commentary on sushi-grade fish, frozen or no, because I know exactly nothing about it. ;) My comments were mainly about the interim times, 'twixt sea and land, making the bulk of the difference between fish that's "three days out" instead of "three weeks out."
                  Regarding that last question, though: I think the chances of what you mention are slim to none, not that the person delivering the information intends to be deceptive but that they really have no way of knowing the fully correct answer and are generally parroting whatever they've been told by the chef. I'm basing this on my experience w/ places like Red Lobster, where "fresh" is the buzzword - but as has been said here, "fresh" is a relative term. So, unless your dinner plans involve Le Bernardin or Le Bec Fin...most of us are, for the largest part, ass-out. :)

                  1. re: mamachef

                    Le Bec Fin first opened my freshman year in college, 1970, but it closed this past summer. R.I.P.

                    1. re: Veggo

                      Le Bec Fin was one of my unrealized goals.

                      Some years ago, we were hosting two couples, and I had made reservations for our first visit. Well, I was informed, by her, who must be obeyed, that those two couples were dining there two nights later, and we had to take them elsewhere. We could not get in on that trip, or the next - then they were history. See if I ever cancel my reservations, because some guest is dining there sometime in the future. That is their problem, and not mine.

                      Now I tell folk, "we are dining at ___, and hope that you can join us." If they come back with "Sorry, but we are dining there next week," then my comment is "I hate to hear that, as you will be missed. See you at the club (or wherever)."


                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        It remodeled a few years ago, in a tawdry motif oriented toward a casual "hipster" crowd, with an equivalent dumbed-down menu, and it didn't fly.
                        As big a loss to Philly as Locke Ober was to Boston.

                        1. re: Veggo

                          So very sad to hear.

                          I still have a few "target restaurants," and will no longer take "later" for an answer.

                          Back when I was in Philly, it had not opened yet. When my wife was at Wharton, it was out of the question for a poor grad student. We just missed our chance, but such is life. I wanted to taste the Quenelles de Brochet, but will try to make up for that omission in my life.

                          Thanks for the info,


                      2. re: Veggo

                        Well - guess I can scratch it from the list, then. :)

                      3. re: mamachef

                        I haven't been to Red Lobster since I worked there in the 1980s, but at that time they had a "Fresh" board and those fish really were fresh. They flew them in FedEx from Boston twice a week and were never frozen. The funny thing is, we are on Long Island, but Boston won that bid.

                        1. re: mamachef

                          i didn't mean to direct it to you, just thoughtlessly hit the "reply" button.
                          completely agree with everything you said in this thread.

                    2. If you live in an inland state, the likelihood of finding fresh ocean fish will be low. I would recommend sticking with local freshwater varieties. Fir example, around the Great Lakes, I have sad spectacular walleye. Unless there is an active fish market in your area, I would temper my expectations for fresh ocean fish. Grilling your waiter won't get you any more information as its not likely that s/he or even the chef will really know.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: Bkeats

                        I agree. Grilling your waiter will not yield better fish information than frying him, blackening him, or sautéing him.

                        1. re: Veggo

                          I was at a restaurant in Galveston the water was insisting the speckled trout was local. I knew better but I asked him just to hear is answer. You can't sell speckled trout caught in Texas. I don't know if he was misinformed or lying, not important.

                          1. re: Bkeats

                            Hi Bkeats,

                            Good information. I had figured that the waiter would run back and ask the chef my questions and that the chef would be able to answer them. As one other person mentioned, the chef would probably have no idea how long the fish was on the boat before arriving.

                            But the chef would or should know how long the fish has been frozen. According to a previous Chowhound discussion, storing fish in a freezer for more than a week can have the effect of altering the structure and texture of the fish, due to an "expansion effect", giving it that "frozen" taste.

                            Perhaps, I should only ask how long the fish has been frozen. But this would not be necessary if I stick to reputable restaurants which consistently provide fresh tasting fish.


                            1. re: PontiusPalate

                              actually, the chefs in Anytown USA would NOT likely know how long the fish was frozen.

                              even more important that whether the fish was frozen for more than a week would be to know how quickly the fish was flash frozen, at what temperature was the fish held after freezing, how much temperature fluctuation occured after freezing and before thawing, and how much time the fish spent after thawing before being served to you.

                              of course, nobody in a " typical restaurant located at Anytown, USA" is likely to know ANY of this.

                          2. Most seafood is frozen. Even at a seafood restaurant at the seashore only a few items are likely to be locally caught and fresh. When I go to the beach (in Oregon) I know which seafood is local and I stick with the things I know at the restaurants I know. At home I expect most fish to be frozen and don't eat fish in restaurants that often.

                            1. There is a reason why 1 ounce of fish in a sushi place costs in the range of $5.

                              The vast majority of commercial fish is processed at sea and frozen. That is why it is so cheap. Fresh fish comes off my hook. In a restaurant, I look for local species. Not too many grouper in Oshkosh Wisconsin. But I always order the walleye, bluegill, or whitefish when offered as a special.

                              17 Replies
                                1. re: ferret

                                  Obviously. But it has been inspected by somebody to be "Sushi Grade". And hopefully treated better.

                                  1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                    "Sushi grade" simply means appropriate for use as sushi -- i.e. frozen per USDA guidelines.

                                    1. re: ferret

                                      No, "sushi grade" means it looks pretty and the retailer can add a few extra bucks per pound.

                                      1. re: ricepad

                                        In USA, I think that "sushi grade" only means it was frozen below zero Fh for a specified period of time in order to ensure the death of parasites.

                                        1. re: Bada Bing

                                          Nope. In the US, "sushi grade" means nothing, because it's not a defined grade. It's strictly a marketing approach for pretty fish.

                                          1. re: ricepad

                                            Interesting that, yes, it isn't an FDA category, but it's not about "pretty" according to my fish market. It's about certain metrics of freezing time and temperature to ensure the demise of certain parasites. It might be that you feel they're bullshitting or being duped. But I doubt it, as I know these people, and they're not liars or fools.

                                            1. re: Bada Bing

                                              Your fish market is marketing pretty fish to you. All they are likely doing is taking their best fish, calling it "sushi grade" and adding to the price. Yes, it's probably better than the 'regular' fish. But calling it "sushi grade" means nothing other than it's good fish. In other words, "sushi grade" is not an objective measure. I'm not calling anybody a liar.

                                              1. re: ricepad

                                                Yes, anyone can call their fish Sushi-Grade...but reputable outlets will have available Frozen fish specifically for Sushi./Sashimi. Anyone offering cooked fish from Sushi grade would be suspect....but Sushi-Grade is indeed more than pretty fish...especially the highly sought after Tuna and Tuna Belly..

                                                The following link is where most top Sushi restaurants get their fish....even Morimoto


                                                1. re: ricepad

                                                  You're not listening to what I'm saying. My market makes no claims about the "sushi grade" fish being better, and no one regards it as "prettier." It's not even the most expensive stuff. Not even half the price of Alaskan halibut.

                                                  In fact, the only fish that they sell under this heading is tuna steaks, and all that the name means is a certain guarantee about how it has been frozen, which supposedly makes it safer to eat raw.

                                                  1. re: Bada Bing

                                                    Believe what you want to believe. And trust me, your market sells "sushi grade" tuna for more than their 'regular grade' tuna, and the biggest difference is that it looks better. It may even have come from the same fish.

                                                    Your fish market will tell you the truths that align with their desire to keep you as a customer. If you want the whole story, get a job in a fish market. Or behind the sushi bar.

                                                    1. re: ricepad

                                                      <<It may even have come from the same fish.>>

                                                      The cut, from the tuna (same fish), may well tell different stories. Depends on the person, who butchers the fish, and then on the chef, who prepares it.


                                                      1. re: ricepad

                                                        Your determination to tell me about my market is odd.

                                                        If you want me to accept that there is plenty that is "fishy" in fish marketing, right down to whether they even get the species right, I think we can be on the same page. There's evidence that we can refer to.

                                                        But you don't know my supermarket. It's a small regional chain, I've known the fishmonger on a first-name basis for years, and I'm not ready to get on board with your shotgun cynicism.

                                                        Finally, there is in fact no special markup on the tuna. I looked today. They actually label it as "sashimi grade," for what that matters. And it's only about how it's been frozen. It's sold frozen.

                                                        1. re: Bada Bing

                                                          No, I'm really only trying to get through to you that "sushi (or sashimi) grade" has little to no objective meaning. But you win. I give up.

                                        2. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                          <<inspected by somebody>>

                                          that could be ANYBODY.

                                          1. re: westsidegal

                                            hence my point below that I think I got made fun of for...does anyone really know what they are getting???