Just because something isn’t popular doesn’t mean it’s without merit—and, no, I’m not referencing what your mother told you after your first tragic day of middle school. In the culinary world especially, it’s far too easy for the fooderati to believe they already have a firm grasp of everything worth knowing within their own town. That’s even truer in press-heavy New York City, where if you simply add a bunch of crazy shit to a milkshake, you’ll have hundreds of hosannas written about a "new discovery." But if anything, the rise of the faddish items tailored for Instagram means the masses are less likely to probe deeper into menus, instead settling on what appears in their IG feeds as opposed to exploring the "deep cuts."
The rise of social-media "hits" aren't the only hurdle for unheralded dishes, though. You’ll often hear diners say they’re “open to anything,” yet so many people play it safe come dinner time, leaving many great items to languor at the end of a menu's bench. Dishes designed around weird animal bits—hearts and blood, for instance—seem to be inherently restricted from ever becoming a particularly popular order on any given menu. Likewise, even in a melting pot like Manhattan, sometimes dishes with strange, hard-to-pronounce foreign names might not prosper all too well (what exactly is Maque Choux?!). And while high-priced, luxe items might be eyeballed aspirationally by many menu-flippers, most customers are ultimately forced to stick with the basic cheeseburger they can actually afford.
Despite what the POS system might say, we'd like to believe that the "chef knows best." Which is what makes their perverse desire to keep an unpopular dish on a menu all the more interesting—are they holding out for a certain type of diner? Is it a matter of stubborn pride? Tyler Cowen, author of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, has his own theory about restaurants that might provide some insight: "The logic is simple. At a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out. The kitchen’s time and attention are scarce. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good."
Following that logic, we hit up chefs, GMs, and food and beverage directors at some of the city’s more acclaimed and longstanding joints—from no-frills gastropubs to high-end steakhouses, landmarked oyster bars and revived dives—asking them to defend the least popular item on their menu. Why is it still there if no one ever orders it? The following are underdog dishes close to a chef or establishment’s heart. It’s about damn time they start getting the respect they deserve—and it’s about damn time you finally give them a try.