Armchair travel, once a preferred pastime of the penniless literati, has been eclipsed lately by armchair eating. You know the type: Top Chef on the DVR; Eater.com on the RSS; dog-eared gourmet glossies on the coffee table; and a digital paper trail of frothy food tweets.
It is indeed a sporty thing to keep current in the episodic food world. It’s quite another to know shit from Shinola when you finally sit down at a restaurant to eat. Even those lucky enough to have industry pals to pester for dining tips may be led astray when faced with ordering from a sprawling menu.
All of this is to say that as a food writer (and thus professional recommender), nothing rankles more than the friend who needles me for expert dinner suggestions, then disregards my marching orders. If I tell you to order the Montanara Starita pizza at Don Antonio in midtown Manhattan—and only the Montanara Starita pizza at Don Antonio—and you report your disappointment with the pistachio pesto pie then you, brother, are beyond reproach.
There’s roasted chicken on the menu at the iconic Grand Central Oyster Bar. Is that a better bet than the oyster pan roast? Hooker, please.
Menus can indeed be tricky, and even at the most interesting restaurants, there’s always an item or two thrown in as a concession to middlebrow tastes. So too are there freak flag dishes—the frivolous experiments of self-indulgent chefs, awkwardly shoehorned into otherwise straightforward bills of fare.
Eating out in any cosmopolitan city is an exercise in avoiding these landmines. But knowing how to maneuver a menu is a skill—not an instinct. Some of this is common sense, of course. It is possible to order Atlantic salmon and a side of broccoli at Peter Luger Steakhouse, for example. But you simply shouldn’t. There’s roasted chicken on the menu at the iconic Grand Central Oyster Bar. Is that a better bet than the oyster pan roast? Hooker, please.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details. And when you’re dining at a hot new upstart—the kind of place you reserve three weeks out for the privilege of an 11pm table—the stakes to make the right choices are considerably higher. Herewith, some tips to keep in mind during your next meal out.
Next page: six essential ordering tips…
Read—don’t scan—the menu. If you’ve taken the time to research and reserve a table at a restaurant topping every cool-hunter’s hit list, then you owe it to yourself to consider the options carefully. Many menus read like haikus these days, and others list only ingredients; it’s good to have a clear and honest sense of where your tastes lie (Szechuan peppercorns: yay; roasted red peppers: nay) when charting your course. And while menus posted online are often out of date, reading them ahead of time can give you some sense of what to expect.
Avoid the freak-flag dishes. It should be clarified that risk-taking foods aren’t universally spurious. The umbrage here is with dishes so disruptively daring that they buck the character of a place. The liquid nitrogen flash-frozen duck liver granita on the steakhouse menu? That’s the freak-flag dish. Save that kind of pageantry for a place that specializes in it, and stick with the New York strip.
Dismiss rubber stamp clichés. The beet salad with goat cheese. The truffled mac and cheese. The molten chocolate cake. These kind of ubiquitous dishes are almost always phoned in—lifeless chestnuts designed to oblige timid diners. And you’re not a timid diner.
Be aware of menu mind games. Much has been said about the psychology of menu design, and how typography, layout, even the omission of dollar signs can influence the way your order. Simply knowing this is a strong line of defense. Areas that the eye is naturally drawn to—the upper right hand corner and graphic boxes, for example—often contain the kitchen’s high-profit items. Less trodden areas of the menu (like the lower left) can contain items that have a tighter margin—they are more expensive for the restaurant to produce. Ignore your instincts and look there to wring more bang from your buck.
Don’t double up. Pro eaters rarely abide two identical orders at the same table, unless you’re dealing with small plates or appetizers that aren’t large enough to provide a taste for the whole group. Particularly if you went through the reservations wringer to eat here, you want to take the opportunity to get a solid sampling of what the kitchen has to offer. Diversify and share. In the case of a short or uber-minimalist menu, the pro tack is to order one of everything (reserve ahead for a group).
And finally, don’t eat brunch. Fuck outta here brunch.
Jordana Rothman is a Brooklyn-based writer who most recently served as Food & Drink editor at Time Out New York. Follow her on Twitter: @jordanarothman.