Why You Should Think Twice Before Ordering Off The Menu

We're living in the peak era of ultra-customization. Restaurants, catering companies, and grocery stores have spent the last few decades expanding and tweaking their offerings to appeal to the greatest number of patrons possible. In some ways, this is good. People with celiac disease or lactose intolerance no longer have to worry about having a deadly (or at least, deeply uncomfortable) episode while eating out. Vegetarians, vegans, and everyone on the flexitarian or reducetarian scale are no longer the bane of their omnivore friends' existence. In fact, in many big cities, they've become the norm.

But being able to specify whether you'd like your burger beef or Beyond, your bun gluten-free, or your peanut sauce nixed is the reasonable side of the culinary customization economy. You can't help it if you were born with an allergy, or took up a defensible moral stand against eating meat. But there's a darker side to asking for substitutions or alternatives when ordering at a restaurant.

The rise of the secret menu has led many customers to believe the old maxim, that they are always right, no matter the cost to employees. With entire Reddit threads devoted to off-menu items at fast food chains, it could be easy to assume that everyone's taking the listed menu as a vague suggestion, but ordering off the menu at a restaurant could get you in more trouble than you think.

Save your substitutions for Starbucks

There's nothing more frustrating to a server or cook than guests who insist on ordering things that aren't on the menu or asking for so many substitutions that they may as well have ordered a different dish. And you don't want to end up like the guys in "The Menu" who insisted on getting a side of bread with their $1,200 10-course meal.

If you do have an allergy or dietary restriction, then by all means, ask if there are menu items that suit your needs. But ask politely, and maybe use your common sense. Don't go to a steakhouse if you're vegan, or a traditional Italian restaurant if you can't eat gluten.

But if you know you're a picky eater, do yourself a big favor and check the menu before you go to a restaurant. Some menus will list substitution options, but others might explicitly state a "no substitutions" clause ... and they mean it. If you don't like anything on the menu, then it's probably a sign you should eat somewhere else. Someone, somewhere, is serving something you'll like eating, no matter how plain your tastes are. After all, what's cacio e pepe but buttered noodles for adults?

Substitutions might be acceptable at fast food joints or big chains, but at a sit-down restaurant they interrupt the flow of service as staff works tirelessly to manage the expectations of a customer who probably doesn't want to be there in the first place.