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Nov 5, 2013 11:53 AM

Restaurants: not hearing about the specials until you've already decided on your order

I feel like the this has been happening more and more over the years...

I get seated at a restaurant, I get handed the menu, I get asked if I want tap or bottled/sparkling water, I wait and review the menu, I receive the water of my choice, I get asked if I want a drink, I wait for that drink, I continue reading over the menu, I receive my drink, I keep on reading the menu and at this point have decided what I want....

Then the server comes over with pad and pen in hand (at some places, no pad, but that look in their eye that signals they're ready to take and memorize your order), SURPRISE - WE HAVE SPECIALS!, quickly runs through them and then holds up their pad and pen and asks "So, are you ready to order?".

WHAT?!?! You make me hang out for 10-15 minutes with the menu and then just before you're about to take my order you tell me you have all these other dishes that me and my dining partners may want to try instead of what we had previously decided on!?!?

Then, if we do want to re-convene we have to ask for "another minute" - and often the server half forgets that we still need to order, resulting in one of us having to stop our conversation so we can attempt to get the server's attention.

Really, I don't get why some of these places don't tell you the specials once they seat you and hand you the menu.

I've also observed that it's more common in some cities than in others. For example, it seems to be the rule, and not the exception in 99% of the places I've been going to in NYC....but when I go to the SF Bay Area I'm usually informed of the specials earlier in the process (and what a relief that is).

Have you guys experienced this...and does it bother you, too?

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  1. Once you get to a certain level most restaurants have specials. It would be nice if they told you up front. It would be even nicer if they printed them out, *with* the prices, and included them with the menu.

    That's not the world I live in.

    I pick my starter and main and when the server comes by with the recited list of specials I listen attentively. Normally the list isn't overly long. If something piques my interest I'll ask for it to be repeated and also ask the price.

    Every 2 or 3 years two items might appeal. When that happens I take an extra few minutes and then I make my choice. But that's rare - usually I figure out what I want immediately. For me making a choice isn't that hard.

    If this is a continuing source of frustration to you (and I can understand why - people are different) I'd ask about the specials as soon as the menus are presented. That would solve the problem.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Bob Martinez

      If this is a continuing source of frustration to you (and I can understand why - people are different) I'd ask about the specials as soon as the menus are presented. That would solve the problem.
      Simple solution for a simple's amazing how many would rather complain about it. Asking questions, or making requests, solves lots a problems.

      1. re: Bob Martinez

        >>> It would be even nicer if they printed [the specials] out, *with* the prices, and included them with the menu.<<<

        Those are my Restaurant Pet Peeves numbers 2 and 3.

      2. Yes, and I hate it. I want the specials printed, with prices, but this almost never happens. I generally handle it as Bob Martinez described, but if there's a language barrier or the restaurant is loud, it's very annoying to have to listen to the specials and try to remember what sounds good. I also hate having to ask for the price.

        16 Replies
        1. re: biondanonima

          Agreed. They should print them out along with the price.

          Like I said, usually the list is short enough so I can deal with it but there was one notable exception. We were at Otto, one of Batali's restaurants here in NYC. The server came over and recited between 10 and 15 specials. I was so amazed I lost count. I asked for them to be repeated, stunned that anybody could remember that many.

          After a second listen there were 2 of them that were somewhat appealing and I think I ordered one. (My memory is fuzzy - nothing like that had ever happened to me.)

          I've been back to Otto about 4 times since then and the list of specials has dropped back to a manageable 4 or 5.

          That mega list of specials has been a once in a lifetime experience so far.

          1. re: Bob Martinez

            Not having the specials printed is a folly if you are serious about selling them. There is a famous experiment from the late 1950s called Brown-Peterson that tests short term memory. The subject of the experiment is shown three letters and asked to remember them. Not too hard, one would think. The crux is that immediately after having been shown the letters, the subject is asked to perform a mental task that will interfere with memorizing the letters. The original experiment had the subject count backwards from some large number. After a certain time period, the subject is asked to recall what the three letters were. Turned out that after 18 seconds, the success rate was below 10 percent.

            Now imagine a restaurant where the server rattles off ten specials and then distracts you by asking if you want still or sparkling water, or if you have a drink order, or your dining companions strike up a conversation. Are you going to remember what those ten specials were? Not a chance.

            1. re: nocharge

              ha yes, i don't have to imagine it - I live it!

              and the other issue is, it must be a pain for the servers. Rattling the same thing from table to table - why torture them like that? Maybe printed specials would save them those precious minutes so they can do something else, or just have a bit more breathing room, too.

              I'm curious to know if there's any advantage to limiting the specials to verbal communication (yes, saving paper is good - but a restaurant can always use chalkboard or similar).

              1. re: waxyjax

                I think there are a couple of arguments for doing the specials verbally, none of which convince me.

                1. You can run out of a dish and a customer who has read it on the menu may be disappointed to hear that it's not available. That is a very valid concern. However, restaurants run out of regular menu items as well and the simple solution is to inform customers what is sold out or in short supply at the time a written menu is handed out. There are other approaches, of course, including chalkboards, iPads, and reprinting menus that could be used to give customers an up-to-date view of what is available.

                2. Giving a verbal presentation gives a server an opportunity to "sell" a dish. However, nothing prevents a server from "selling" a dish even if it's printed on a menu. Moreover, the vast majority of times when I hear specials recited, the server is in a hurry and just rattling off a list somewhat mechanically rather than actually "selling" the items.

                1. re: nocharge

                  if they run out the manager knows (or should) and in this day and age of cheap printers, just have a stack of blank half-size sheets and a line item document on the screen ready to 'delete as needed' so when the call to "86 the halibut!" comes - highlight item, and control X (or command X) and run off a few as needed - takes 20 seconds with communication. host/ess should be aware if the current specials are placed as a slip in the regular menu and the staff prepared to break hearts if they've been axed.

                  easy. so easy.

                  1. re: hill food

                    Printer paper is about a cent or two a sheet, slightly more of you want some fancy paper quality. A printer is a couple of hundred bucks and a restaurant would probably need one or two anyway. There is some additional costs, like ink and someone editing the menu on a computer, but I really don't see reprinting a written specials menu being a huge issue in terms of cost.

                    1. re: nocharge

                      even if the manager or host/ess isn't proficient in anything more than Word or Excel, it's so easy to set up a borderless 'table' of specials and delete as needed. or don't print updated versions as the night goes on and just offer verbal apologies if asked about said halibut.

                      1. re: hill food

                        Yes, absolutely. However, I think that one good point in this discussion is that you shouldn't present a diner with menu options that are sold out without mentioning it. At the very least, tell them about what is sold out or in short supply at the time a written menu is handed out if the written menu hasn't been updated. But then, printing an up-to-date menu is not super expensive, probably less so than using gimmicks like iPads.

                        1. re: nocharge

                          you 'n' me, nc = same page (so to speak).

                          iPads (while useful) raise a whole new level of techno issues like formats, network access, concern (customer and mgmt alike) and not all people are that connected.

                          they can just print a sheet of 2-3 menus to a lousy piece of paper (recycled to start and then recycle again) and cut it, the size would look better than an 8.5x11 or A4 sheet anyway.

                  2. re: nocharge

                    many chefs and owners consider the specials recitation as an opportunity for the server to interact with the guest. some servers are engaging, while some are not. often they can be harried and uncomfortably aware that another table needs something else while they are spieling yours and so yeah, they rush through it.

                    not every place is a chalkboard environment. nor is every place one that wants some cheap slips of paper all over the room.

                    at this point, many places already present a food menu, a drinks list and a wine list. do you really want a 4th thing to read?

                    as far as reprinting during service? that is high-sterical. if the place isn't busy, it's certainly possible, but if a place is running flat-out? the logistics of assuring all the old ones are 100% discarded and new ones distributed are nearly impossible. yeah, sure, word is a super easy program and operating a printer is simple as well, but chasing down 10-20 very busy, multi-tasking servers and a passel of bartenders, while seating guests, taking coats and answering phones, is not.

                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                      OK printing during service is probably unwork-able, but the paper doesn't have to be replaced continuously, and it's easier than having the staff memorize the equivalent of a sonnet every night. just a simple insert or even sign by the door and later "I'm sorry, we're out of that, but the (___) is excellent" works for me.

                      sorry I and so many others have some level of ADD and simply can't follow the litany.

                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                        Here is a simple solution: Many restaurants have daily changing menus and print their menus on a daily basis. Why not have the specials on there and have a couple of editions of the menu throughout the evening? Let's say in the easiest case an early and a late edition and you print the edition just before it's about to come into effect to reflect what available at that time. That is certainly doable even in a busy restaurant if you have a standard policy for doing so. That will minimize, but not eliminate, the discrepancies between what is in writing and what is actually available. (And it would cover cases where restaurants run out of regular menu items as well.) Should there be any such discrepancies, the server should announce them at the time the menu is handed out and of course try to "sell" the diners on whatever items on the menu need to be sold regardless of whether they are considered specials or not.

                        1. re: nocharge

                          define early and late? what happens if you have a gorgeous duck special but no takers? printing and replacing any kind of menu during service allows the potential for too much heartache and confusion. honestly.

                          the real solution is fewer specials for the servers to drone on about.

                          if i have received my drinks and haven't heard about specials, i ask the server then. being pro-active as a diner will never work against you!

                          then i tend to key in on the main component of a special. for instance, "we have bluefish with xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx". as i look the menu over, if something else is competing with the bluefish, i simply ask the server to repeat that special before i order. this way i have a plan a and a plan b ready to go.

                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                            I go to some highly successful restaurants that change their menus several times a day. It's certainly very doable.

                            Having fewer specials certainly makes things easier, but why not provide them in writing if you really want to make the diner give them serious consideration.

                            1. Yeah, you can run out, but you can run out of regular menu items as well, so that's an issue that needs to be addressed elegantly no matter what.

                            2. Nothing prevents a server from engaging a diner and "selling" an item just because that item appears on a written menu.

                            3. If I have to beg the server to hear the specials, the restaurant is either very arrogant or not a tightly run ship.

                            1. re: nocharge

                              changing a menu in the down-time between lunch and dinner is not difficult. in the midst of a shift that is balls-to-the-wall? erm, not easy.


                              3. If I have to beg the server to hear the specials, the restaurant is either very arrogant or not a tightly run ship.


                              agreed. however, i have been to more places than not that do NOT run like a swiss watch.

                              1. re: hotoynoodle

                                I agree with your points. However, my frustrations have actually occurred as a result of eating in (what appeared to be) very well-run restaurants. It seems those places in question have made a conscious point of psyching everyone out with rambling their list of specials just before they're about to take an order and so I'm trying to understand why that is.

            2. Dunno. I think it's much worse if you're given a menu while the waiter gets your drinks, you decide on a couple appetizers you want to order… then the waiter returns to say "oh, btw -- we're out of blablabla", i.e. being exactly what you wanted to order.

              Now *that* sucks.

              1. I regard it as foolish for restaurants not to tell you about specials up front when they hand you the menu. Foolish because I imagine there are customers, like me, who have decided by that time and are simply not going to order what are the usually very profitable specials.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Harters

                  @linguafood - that is another very good point!

                  if i can get a chance - usually during the water pouring as it seems the seating/menu drop and the drink drop happen quite quickly - i'll ask about specials....but still, it's a big "if."

                  i know NYC restaurant staff is expected to move efficiently and speedily - but i feel that because of this, they disappear in a blur when i'm about to ask about if there are specials.

                  it's especially the case when I'm first being seated and everyone at the table is trying to get settled - as everyone pointed out, it would just be so much simpler to just have a written list of specials with prices next to them.

                  but duly noted to @bob's advice to try just sucks that's the only solution for so many places. They're in the hospitality business, after all.

                  ...and to @harters point, it's also a business - and the way they're doing things is causing potential loss in revenue

                  a few NYC places off the top of my head that are thoughtful enough to present their specials with the regular menus are:
                  -Noodle Pudding in Brooklyn Heights - they have amazing specials that rarely repeat and have them printed and presented with their normal menu.
                  -Hibino has a chalkboard that they bring to your table as soon as your seated.
                  -Diner does that thing where the server sits across from you and writes the keyword of the special upside down so it reads right-side-up to you (so for example, if there's something elaborate involving duck and an equally elaborate accompaniment for $28 they'll just write "duck $28"). It kinda takes too long and then I end up forgetting what the entire dish is about - but at least they're allowing you and your dining mates to consider it before ordering.

                  again, hasn't been an issue in SF.

                  wondering what it's like in other cities.

                2. I am an odd ball and think they must do this for people like me. By the time drinks, water, apps etc.are ordered I have forgotten what the specials are, especially if it has a lot of ingredients and has several places of origin.

                  I also think it is a tactic aimed at the indecisive diner. I think some restaurants assume some diners are on the fence about one or two dishes. If another, more interesting dish is described to the diner it may sway him/her to choose the more interesting dish. I have seen this happen with different groups of friends. If the special isn't brought up when you are why not ask?

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: free sample addict aka Tracy L

                    Aw that's actually a good point...wonder how successful this method has been. Seems the majority of people I know (plus the posters who agree with me on this thread) get more thrown off by this. But perhaps diners like you make up for the difference.

                    Re: asking about specials early...don't wanna repeat myself but those points--but other related issues around verbally communicating specials are further up thread

                    1. re: waxyjax

                      Re: asking about specials early...don't wanna repeat myself but those points--but other related issues around verbally communicating specials are further up thread

                      I guess getting a message later than you prefer really does irk you.

                      1. re: free sample addict aka Tracy L

                        err...i hope you didn't take what i said as a snarky remark. i just didn't want to write something redundant in this thread.