How to Order in a Restaurant and Get What You Want
Eating out doesn’t have to be a diet disaster. Here are six tips to help you navigate a menu and ask for what you want in a restaurant.
It’s Thursday and I’m still thinking about a ridiculous experience I had at a restaurant last weekend. We were at a new and trendy yet casual neighborhood place for dinner. I scanned the salad offerings and dismissed the vinaigrette-dressed roasted beets (not my favorite), the Southwest (loaded with refried beans and cheese)—and then I zeroed in on the mixed baby greens with creamy buttermilk dressing. I asked my server (“Mike, I’m happy to be taking care of you tonight”) if I could please have the mixed baby greens with the vinaigrette instead of the buttermilk dressing. “I’ll need to check with the chef,” he told me. “Our menu clearly states, ‘no modifications.’” Huh? After a few minutes he came back—with attitude. “The chef said he’ll make an exception.” Looking down his nose at me, I half expected him to add, “Just this once.”
Now let’s be clear. I wasn’t asking for something not on the menu. I wasn’t messing with what could possibly be thought of as a ‘signature dish.’ And I was pretty sure the greens hadn’t been tossed in buttermilk dressing ahead of time. No restaurant would do that unless they wanted to serve a soggy mess. I just wanted my salad with a different dressing.
Before you even walk into a restaurant, you probably have a pretty good idea of what’s going to be on the menu. You might even have some idea of what you’d like to order. If you sharpen your menu reading skills and know what adjustments you can reasonably ask for, it shouldn’t be a struggle to get what you want in a restaurant.
Restaurant dining: 6 tips to help you get what you want
Keep your usual pattern in mind
- If your usual dinner is protein and veggies, don’t bother looking at the sandwich or pasta offerings. You should be focusing on the entrées (mains), the salads, the soups and the sides.
Look at how the item is prepared
- Once you’ve narrowed things down to your protein entrée and some form of vegetable, look at how the items are prepared. When meat, fish or poultry are described as “crispy,” “breaded,” “crusted” or “golden brown,” that’s just a nice way of saying, “fried,” “greasy” and “fatty.” Look for baked, broiled and grilled instead.
Next, look to see what it’s served with
- Are there sauces on the entrées or the veggies? Are they heavy gravies, or butter sauces? Is there a light tomato sauce or wine sauce? Even if the sauce sounds light, ask for it on the side so you can control how much you eat. Same goes for salad dressings.
What side dishes come with it?
- Many restaurants offer the standard meat, starch and vegetable meal. If that’s the case, ask if you can skip the starch and have double the vegetables. I’ve noticed that more restaurants are offering everything a la carte, which makes the process a lot easier. You can pick your entrée and then order a few vegetable dishes on the side.
How large are the portions?
- Many in the restaurant business know that their customers want value—in other words, a lot of food at a reasonable price. Keep in mind that portions are often larger than what you might want—or need. If you’re not sure how much you’ll be getting, ask your server. If it sounds like more than you want, you can either split your meal with a dining companion or plan to take some home. You can also look to the appetizer (starter) section of the menu. A lot of times you can put together a satisfying meal from a few small appetizer offerings.
Ask nicely and be reasonable
- I did, and I was. But I think my recent restaurant experience was unusual, and I did get what I asked for (although it came with side of snide). You don’t want to ask that a menu item be completely revamped. Just reasonable requests—a sauce on the side, a vegetable instead of a potato or, yes, even a different salad dressing isn’t asking too much.
Still hungry for more? See my smart ordering in restaurants article for more tips on how to keep your diet in check when you’re dining out.