6 Tips for Gaming the Restaurant Menu
There’s always that one person in every group who orders the best dish at the restaurant, while you're stuck looking at a sad plate of wilted greens or over-sauced fish. That’s because there are actually tricks to deciphering a menu and figuring out the best thing to order—no matter where you are. Chefs and restaurant professionals share their tips for scoring the perfect meal.
1. SKIP THE RECYCLED DISHES.
If you’re at a burger joint, don’t order the beef tacos, says Laura Soncrant, owner of The Growling Rabbit in Chicago. And if you’re at a barbecue place, don’t order the pork pasta. “They’re trying to get rid of what doesn’t sell any other way,” she tells Mental Floss. So the burger place will use its leftover meat in burritos, tacos, or a pasta sauce, Soncrant says. You’re essentially eating leftovers at that point.
2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK.
Go onto the restaurant’s Yelp page. At the top, the site always pulls out key words that reviewers use over and over again when describing their experience at the restaurant, says Stephen Varela, manager at Villa Berulia restaurant in New York. At his restaurant, for example, reviewers on Yelp often write about the chicken parmesan or the flourless chocolate cake—so these words are highlighted at the top of Villa Berulia’s Yelp page. “These are the dishes that everyone is talking about, so you know that you should be trying them when you come into the restaurant,” Varela says.
3. TAKE A CHANCE ON THE SPECIALS.
Often, the chef will have a vendor who gets a great batch of a certain ingredient (say, beets). "It looks great and fresh, and I say, 'Let me create a dish and see if people are interested in it,'" says Amy Le, co-owner and executive chef of Saucy Porka and Spotted Monkey in Chicago. "A lot of times, it's experimental—it depends on your personality as a diner, if you like to try new things." You can always come back to the restaurant and try the staples over and over again, but if you want to be daring, you can try the specials that may not last, Le says.
4. SEEK OUT HOMEMADE DISHES.
"Scan the menu for these phrases: 'house-made,' 'from scratch,' 'homemade,'" says Soncrant. "These show that the kitchen is doing something from scratch, and it makes a big difference."
5. TALK TO YOUR SERVER.
Don’t ask your server what the most popular dish is, Varela says. Ask what his favorite dish is – or just trust the chef. "Some of our regulars don't even bother looking at the menu," Varela says. "They just ask the servers to tell the chef to make them something delicious and fresh." Since the waiter works for tips and since the chef is flattered by the responsibility, you’re guaranteed to get a fabulous meal this way, Varela says.
6. LOOK AT PHOTOS.
Reading reviews—by both customers and professional critics—is a no-brainer for savvy restaurant-goers. But Varela takes the extra step of checking out the restaurant’s Instagram page prior to dining so he’ll be to be lured by the photos. "I check out the pictures and look at the comments," he says. Part of dining is having all your senses seduced, and this is an easy way to guarantee that it'll work out.