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The Liberation of Not Looking at the Menu

Unless you have dietary restrictions, stop anxiously planning your meal before you even get to the restaurant

Man at restaurant table holds up a paper menu. / Shutterstock
Nick Mancall-Bitel is an editor at Eater overseeing travel coverage and the international maps program.

This post originally appeared in the September 9, 2019 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.

I used to be like you. As soon as I locked in a reservation at a buzzy new spot, I would immediately seek out the menu online. I would scan it once, twice, considering the ingredients in each dish, conjuring the flavors, comparing inclinations to reviews to Instagram, arranging beverage pairings, strategizing pacing. If it was a group meal, I would prepare my case to convince friends and family to order specific dishes I believed integral to the true experience of the restaurant. It was my belief that if a restaurant did not bother publishing a menu online (or, somehow worse, failed to update it consistently), that establishment didn’t deserve my business.

And then I found liberation. I simply stopped looking at menus online.

Of course, this move isn’t meant for those who might be scoping out a menu to check on how well it addresses dietary restrictions. But counterintuitively and on the whole, I’ve enjoyed meals much more by avoiding the menu before reaching the table. Going in without preconceived notions heightens your senses and allows you to form unbiased gut impressions. It lets your stomach, rather than your mind, lead the conversation, and rewards a la minute cravings. It also opens the door to discovery, allowing you to freely explore unpopular (that’s “untapped,” to you) regions of the menu. Branching away from a predetermined ordering plan means you can take cues from the environment around you, like the influencer snapping IG pics of a sizzling platter or the server who won’t stop ranting about the “Nobel Prize-worthy” oysters (whether he’s right or wrong, it’s definitely worth finding out). It’s a relief to shrug off the pressure to optimize the dining experience and go with the flow.

This strategy is especially rewarding for group meals. No four-top has ever entirely aligned on eating preferences. If you plan the entire meal ahead of time, you will undoubtedly meet resistance from your fellow diners on at least some selections. That leaves you with two options: You cave (and let the dishes that got away haunt you forever), or you dictatorially bully your soon-to-be former friends into eating what you want. If a dish flops, you’ll hear “Remember that time Nick made us all eat that goat neck ice cream?” for the rest of your life. It might as well be your neck on that plate — er, ice cream dish.

This is true whether you dine with like-minded foodies or total neophytes. If your dining partners are also the types to research the menu, let them have the small victory of choosing. If you’re sitting across from out-of-towners or in-laws or children or any non-omnivore you’d normally coerce into a group order, excitedly embrace their preferences. Your date is really into offal these days? You can get down with some beef-heart skewers. Little Aidan only eats red things now? Borscht it is. Your cousin just went vegetarian? Saag paneer sounds great.

This concept may seem anathema to a well-informed eater, but in a food industry increasingly driven by hype and digital engagement, it can feel gratifying to act out against our addictions to technology and overplanning. These days, ignorance requires intention and effort, but it’s still bliss, especially combined with the fuzzy, self-congratulatory feeling of bucking internet trends turning us all into hyperactive balls of stress. Diners did in fact enjoy eating before the advent of MenuPages, and you can too.

Consider this your official excuse to skip your homework every now and then. The chef’s most famed dish may leave the menu forever the day after you pass it over. But I can guarantee those 90 minutes at the table with friends and family will be all the more rewarding if you don’t spend the whole time worrying about your order.

P.S. Let’s be real: Every trendy restaurant menu looks the same, anyway.