The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it's full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn't even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you'd like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.
In an ideal world, every dish you order at a restaurant with a wood-fired grill, a tasting of heritage sunchokes, and twenty-dollar neo-Tiki cocktails served in custom gold cups would be delicious. But most restaurant menus are a mix of dishes that the kitchen thinks you want, dishes the chefs love, and dishes that straight-up make money, and not all of them are great. You know what? That’s okay. Restaurants are a business, and we’re all dupes to capitalism sometimes.
But ordering at expensive, hip restaurants is a particular kind of minefield. The servers deliver elaborate yet largely uninformative monologues about menus written to confuse and dazzle — or just to push whatever items management has instructed them to sell — with menus ripe for over-spending or just producing an uneven, unbalanced night out.
When faced with this situation, I’ve developed some (highly subjective) strategies, a product of logic, experience, and personal taste. When ordering, I’m less invested in avoiding getting ripped off (though there’s plenty to look out for) than I am in assembling a satisfying and convivial meal. If you’re faced with found-poetry-style lists of ingredients and words that don’t seem to mean what you think they mean, consider the following tips. Like all rules, these are made to be broken, especially if a restaurant is known for a particular dish or if you’re craving something specific.
Read the Whole Menu First
If you’re at a trendy restaurant, the menu is almost assuredly at least partially designed around “sharing.” The phrase “shared small plates” and the accompanying terrible speech from your server is a cliche by now, but the larger movement away from separate starters and entrees and toward communal plates large and small is still very much with us.
What this means is that ordering is less about whether you feel like fish or chicken, but whether the fish goes with the chicken — think traditional Chinese restaurant, not traditional French. Much like you read the whole recipe before starting to cook, reading the whole menu before you start to order will make sure you don’t miss any important elements, or have to strategize on the fly.
A few general tips: A shared plates meal with a group of four or more will always feel more satisfying with a showstopper large format dish. Strive for balance: For every heavy, meaty dish, pick something light and acidic and preferably made of vegetables for counterbalance. And if you see a only few traditional entrees — a pasta dish, chicken that comes with a side of fancy potatoes — you should probably avoid them. They’re there for picky diners who refuse to partake in the cold-smoked kale. The only exception to this is the burger: A trendy restaurant’s burger is often its loss leader and Instagram star, and is also usually delicious.
The shared plates trend persists in part because it encourages diners to over-order and spend more money. I prefer to err on the side of under-ordering. If there is truly not enough food, you can almost always order an additional dish or two once the meal is underway. Momentary awkwardness with your server is much better than the resignation that hits when a plate, ordered back when you were still ravenous, arrives all the way at the end of the meal, when everyone is too full to touch it.
Don’t Hesitate to Do Research
As someone terrible at planning ahead, here’s a move I recently employed: Sit down, order a cocktail, and then excuse yourself to the bathroom. Whip out your phone and google “[restaurant name] review.” Hopefully you still have one or two good critics in your town and already read their review in full. Skim down to the middle of the review and get a quick refresher on which dishes the critic especially complimented or singled out—or see if there’s a list of recommendations at the bottom. Order those dishes.
In a pinch, a quick scan of pictures on Foursquare or the restaurant’s Instagram tag page will also help, especially if the restaurant hasn’t yet been reviewed. Looks can be deceiving, but if a lot of people are posting the same thing and it’s not because it’s covered in rainbows, it’s probably tasty.
What’s the Deal With Snacks?
More and more restaurant menus open with a section of “snacks” or “small bites” that are distinct from appetizers or starters. This practice has evolved from sad pots of pimento cheese into some weird and wonderful dishes. Kitchens afraid to try out ambitious flavor combinations on expensive items will often slip experiments into snacks. And if the miso butterscotch spelt balls are gross, well, at least there were only two of them.
Hold Salad to High Standards
Salads are only good in wedge form doused with full-fat dressing, or in restaurants that genuinely source locally (or are located in California). Proceed accordingly.
Trendy Starters Might Still Be Delicious
Labneh and cauliflower are the new burrata and brussels sprouts, and all can be done badly. But if you avoid ordering things simply because they are popular, consider that maybe your palate is not as unique as you imagine. It’s okay to enjoy that charred tahini cauliflower, even if it reveals you are mostly just like everyone else. It’s okay! It’s good!
Order At Least One Oddball Small Plate
Don’t be afraid to be obvious, but also don’t be afraid to take risks. This is especially true during a restaurant’s first six months, when truly innovative dishes have yet to be shaved off the menu by lackluster customer demand.
Sometimes a restaurant’s best dishes sound borderline hostile, and that means the kitchen loves them. One of the best dishes I had this year was a veal brain at Clown Bar in Paris. It looked exactly like a veal brain; it was there to make a statement and maybe fuck with you a little, but it was also silky and expertly poached, treated with the kind of finesse a busy kitchen can scarcely deploy.
The other power move might be an understated menu item. L.A.’s Broken Spanish is loud, boisterous and serves meaty plates like a large-format chicharron, but one of the best things on the menu is a round of tortillas and lentils. If a menu item stands out as simple without sounding familiar (like a boring pasta dish), get it.
This rule can be taken too far: I tend to avoid dishes that seem not just risky, but out of step with the restaurant’s strengths, like Thai curry at a place specializing in Mediterranean food. I love fusion as much as any ‘90s kid, but cooking adeptly across many traditions requires a diversity of pantry supplies, knowledge, technique, and humility found only in truly superlative restaurants. Of course, if you’re convinced you’re somewhere that is truly superlative, all bets are off.
Know Your Hierarchy of Proteins
The most important advice I can give you is to know what you like, and order that. This often comes down to a question of prioritizing proteins. When choosing an entree or a large shared plate, the whole fish is almost always my move, if it’s available. Easier to cook than a filet and unappealing to pickier diners, the whole fish is typically a dish where the kitchen has fun. That means the flavors will be more intriguing, the presentation more beautiful, and the quality of the fish will be excellent. Also, it’s not too heavy. Obviously, it’s an order that requires comfort with slipping meat off bones, and not having anyone at the table who objects to seeing a face attached to whatever they’re eating.
If no whole fish is available, my hierarchy is as follows:
- Chicken in its acceptable forms (fried, thigh, or “for two”)
- Organ meats
- Pork (fatty / slow cooked)
- Fish filets
- Other less-popular meats (bison, venison)
- Pork (lean / topped with hot fruit)
- Shellfish (unless extremely well-sourced)
If a dish exists solely to serve as a vegetarian option, it is probably bad. Some telling signs: The dish is clearly is imitating a meat preparation, it is needlessly low fat or otherwise healthy-sounding, or it is a hodgepodge of ingredients that all happen to not contain meat, especially if some of those ingredients are stuffed inside of others. Don’t get the cauliflower steak lingering at the bottom of the “larger plates” section. Just order all the vegetarian sides.
What About Dessert and Booze?
Both of these topics can be expanded upon in detail, but a few thoughts: When it comes to drinks, I start with a (stupid expensive yet delicious) cocktail or bubbles, switch to wine or beer paired with the meal, and wrap up with an amaro if I’m feeling so inclined (or so overstuffed).
Dessert is great! You just ate a giant meal and now you’re going to skip a small plate of something sweet out of a misguided sense of virtue? No. If a restaurant employs a pastry chef, plan to get every dessert on the menu.
The Actual Process of Ordering
You have a limited amount of time to get your order together, and nothing is worse than making your server hover while you and your dining companions figure out your final details. If you’re out with a big party and everyone is sharing, the notes section on your phone is a key resource.
If you have questions for your server, make sure they’re targeted and meaningful. Dietary restrictions are obviously worth mentioning; preferences disguised as dietary restrictions are not. In terms of getting real, useful recommendations, the best way to go is to describe what you like, rather than asking, “What’s good?” A rapport is important, because what you’re really asking is, “What is not good at your place of employment?” Give your server some direction — and some cover.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s senior features editor.