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Help For Diners Who Don’t Understand How Menus Work

I was both tickled and troubled by a post I found at Food & Wine, revealing how clued-out some restaurant diners are about what menus mean, and how they are meant to be used. I humbly offer my pick of the ordering faux pas mentioned therein…

Gazellig Resto Ottawa - © GezelligThe Gezellig Restaurant, Ottawa: A venue for a real menu…

I couldn’t believe that some diners in sit-down restaurants don’t know how menus work. Really. I grew up visiting sit-down restos with my family and was tutored by my mom in what menus mean and how they are meant to be used. But I guess some Gen Xs and Zs haven’t had the same revelatory experience.

The heading of the Food & Wine post is more an instruction than a title: ‘Forward This to Your Friend Who Apparently Doesn’t Know How Menus Work’.

A few choice points for resto tyros to ponder

The menu is not a shopping list…

“The items listed on the menu are not mere suggestions of what you can build upon; it’s not an ingredient list or a pantry. The penne for one entree and the fresh vegetables for another does not a pasta Primavera make. Your options are quite clearly printed before you.”

…Nor is the menu a starting point for negotiations

“If you leave something off an entrée, don’t expect a credit. You can’t order chicken and cheese quesadillas as a vegan and then be surprised to pay full price for a grilled tortilla with sparse red peppers. […] They might be willing to substitute beans for the chicken, but if the menu says ‘no substitutions’, accept it.”

The menu is like a traffic light

“Your menu can be used as a signal of communication between you and your server. As long as it is open and you are looking at it, your server is going to assume you are not ready to place your order. An attentive server is waiting for the visual clue of you closing the menu so they can approach your table and begin to take your order.”

And… Using a menu is a two-way street

…But the restaurant will usually have the right of way.

Is the classic menu headed for extinction?

It occurred to me, reading the F&W post, that its injunctions may be moot. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. And for the rest of our lives.

Sit-down restos are facing an uncertain future to say the least. Some say extinction is right around the corner. I think that’s a bit extreme. I see some sit-down restos – particularly the posh stand-alones and hotel locations – carrying on for at least the foreseeable future. They have their place in society. For special occasions, big dates, and business lunches.

Let me make one thing clear: I’m not taking about diners and takeouts. Much less Fast Food chains. In fact, I’m bullish about the prospects of all street-level eateries. Especially street food vendors, who should by rights proliferate as higher-end dining establishments fade. The street-level entrepreneurs offer choice, affordable prices and – in many cases, authenticity not found in higher-level restos. And those are all qualities the under-30s are looking for in their out-of-home dining experiences.

Backlit and overhead

Those under-30s chiefly know ‘menus’ as backlit plastic signs on the wall behind the counter at grab-and-go joints. They’re more simple lists of brand-named choices than actual menus, in the classic sense.

Table service by a waiter is something many of them have never experienced. So it’s natural to expect they would make some serious fuax pas when thrust into such an environment.

One point the F&W post makes, which might both surprise and disappoint the young, is that the vast majority of upper-tier restos have no ‘secret menu’. And if they do, it’s probably no secret. They’ve likely leaked it for promotional purposes long ago.

Respect your server

And perhaps the most important rule is that the server is there to serve you. They are not your servant.

As a companion post emphasizes, they are not there to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you. They are not there to provide free dinner theatre.

Author Darron Cordosa summs it up tarty: “We will smile and entertain and tell jokes or even hang a stopwatch around our neck if that’s what it takes to earn a good tip. Servers have plenty of pride, but sometimes it gets smothered in ranch dressing.”

~ Maggie J.