A Beginner’s Guide to Navigating a Restaurant Menu

customerlookingatmenuReports (made mostly by me!) to the contrary notwithstanding, I don’t hate my job. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t exactly love it, either. It’s not like I jump out of bed in the morning just itching to put on my uniform or anything silly like that! A career in food service certainly has its challenges. I’ve probably covered this before, but it bears repeating — mainly because it is simply mind-boggling to me that I need to spend large chunks of every shift guiding the huddled masses through something as simple as a menu.

This notion that folks simply either cannot or will not participate in the act of reading (and comprehending!) this straightforward document causes me to judge them, perhaps unfairly, maybe even harshly, but I find myself judging them just the same. In an effort to stop this less than kind behavior and to, hopefully — if there is a God! — streamline this process for those of you who may be planning on dining out in the near future, I have decided to write a menu primer. I really, really, really hope this helps. Because, seriously, who wants to spend their workday feeling as if they are surrounded by idiots? (If I want to feel that way, I’ll just enter into a conversation with one of my co-workers!)

These are the liquid items that one imbibes in to either slake their thirst or, in the case of the potent potable, catch a slight buzz. In either case, they will be listed in any number of places on the menu. Beverages containing alcohol, as they are the more expensive items which generate the largest profit for the company, are often listed prominently on the menu OR they are featured in their own little menu, which remains on the table for quick and handy reference.

When you are dining in an establishment that features a bar, please stop asking the service professional “What kind of drinks you got?” Providing you with this information would take the better part of a day. The answer is “all kinds”. Make your own decisions. Please.

For the record, here in North America, I haven’t stumbled across ANY restaurant which does not offer unsweetened iced tea. We have it, too. It’s even listed on the menu. STOP ASKING and just order it for crying out loud!

On a related note, please open your eyes PRIOR TO inquiring as to whether we have whatever sugar-based or artificial sweetening product you have become accustomed to mixing into this beverage. There are, if you would take the second it takes to gaze around the table, probably eighteen selections of each well in reach of the hand you are using to flag your server down so that you can ask for them. Pay attention.

Regarding hot beverages, most places have tea and coffee. Unless you are at Starbuck’s or The Russian Tea Room, lattes and herbal teas will, more than likely, NOT be on offer. I know it’s disappointing that you cannot finish your meal with something called “Raspberry Zest”, but if you are going to hold it against your server or the dining establishment because they don’t have this niche product, please stick a bag in YOUR bag or your pocket and just order a hot water after your meal. As annoying as the request for hot water is to most servers, I would argue that they would rather provide this free item than hear you carry on about the dearth of herbal teas.

Sometimes called SIDES or STARTERS or something of that nature. These are the items that are designed to be served quickly — for those of you who are fond of letting your server know that you are “STARVING” — you are likely not “STARVING”, perhaps a bit peckish or slightly hungry, but certainly NOT “STARVING” — these are the menu items that you may want to immediately avail yourselves of.

If you are “STARVING” please order one of these. It will go a long way toward avoiding the rubbernecking followed by the sighing (in a most disappointed way!) that many of you engage in every time a server emerges from the kitchen with food that is not, unfortunately for everyone involved, meant for your table.

Keep in mind, when dealing with appetizers, that just because you want a particular thing — Thai Chicken Rolls, for example — doesn’t mean that the restaurant you have wandered into offers such a thing — nor can they or will they “whip them up” for you. Creating a menu item just for you requires the time, energy, ingredients, and culinary skills that, frankly, most line cooks just do not possess. To avoid the trauma associated with the unavailability of the Thai Chicken Roll, might I suggest checking the menu online BEFORE arriving at your lunch destination. It’s just this type of proactive thinking that will, no doubt, save you and your server a great deal of heartache.

This is an area of any restaurant menu that, even I will admit, can be tricky to navigate. Focus and concentration is the key to cracking this minefield of information.

Let’s begin with SOUP. Many, but not all, restaurants have a “SOUP OF THE DAY”. Some of your more upscale establishments, who make the assumption that their clientele have a somewhat higher degree of education and life experience, or places like diners, which are just trying to “fancy” things up a bit, may use the nomenclature “SOUP DU JOUR” to describe their “SOUP OF THE DAY”. Don’t be confused by this. There is no soup product called “SOUP DU JOUR” — it’s just French for “SOUP OF THE DAY”. If you are the type of person who is confounded by other languages, perhaps you should stay out of diners (and you should definitely NOT frequent eateries where the menu is ugly with them, like pizzerias).

If a restaurant offers a “SOUP OF THE DAY” that information will be contained in the area on the menu where the other soups are listed. If either “SOUP OF THE DAY” or (God forbid!) “SOUP DU JOUR” are NOT listed there, it’s safe to assume that the only soups served by the restaurant you have chosen to dine in are the ones that ARE listed. Again, like with the Thai Chicken Rolls, the barley soup that you, for whatever crazy reason, assumed we offered cannot be “whipped up” simply because you had your heart set on it. Sorry. No. Can. Do.

Soups come in two basic varieties. Cream or broth. If a soup is a cream soup it usually begins with the words “Cream of” in its description. I know. Seems rather simple, doesn’t it? Chowders are also cream soups. Broth soups are, pretty much, any OTHER kind of soup. At first glance this doesn’t seem like a “head scratcher” and, yet, I have discovered that the SOUP area of the menu is often the place where guests get lost. Here is a good rule of thumb: if a SOUP is potato, broccoli, or cheese-based, it will also, almost always, be a “cream” soup.

Some restaurants offer different soups on different days of the week. Again, this information is either listed on the actual menu or given to you by your server. If you find yourself dining out on a Friday where the menu lists “Monday’s soup” as Chicken Noodle, “Tuesday’s soup” as Lentil, … “Friday’s soup” as Cream of Asparagus, please do not order the Chicken Noodle Soup. Either come back on Monday or resign yourself to the very delicious Cream of Asparagus. Because it’s Friday. If you do not know what day it is, you have far greater problems than SOUP; problems that may warrant a trip your internist.

SALAD, the restaurant industry’s counterpart or complement to SOUP, is a lettuce-based food item. There are many variations on the SALAD theme. For the moment we will concentrate on the “side” salad. You can generally count on a small side salad to contain not only lettuce, but also some combination of other vegetables, which generally include things like tomatoes (okay, it’s really a fruit — whatever), cucumbers, and onions. Some restaurants add crazy things like shredded cheese, black olives, and croutons to their basic salads. If you don’t like tomatoes, ask for them to be left off PRIOR to receiving your salad. If you are lactose-intolerant either ask your server if there is cheese on the salad or, I don’t know, READ the description if one is available. Often restaurants don’t waste important menu space describing something as simple as a side salad. Really, though, most side salads are basic and include some combination of those items listed above. You know what you like and don’t like; what your body can tolerate and what it can’t. Servers are not mind readers. Tell them what it is you can’t have or don’t like BEFORE your salad is delivered to your table.

The other SALAD that most restaurants offer, as an option to the side/garden/house salad, is the ever-popular Caesar salad. This salad is a romaine lettuce- based salad. It generally includes croutons and parmesan cheese. These items are tossed in an egg-white/anchovy paste/lemon CAESAR dressing. Don’t order a Caesar salad with balsamic vinegarette dressing. You may not look like a hillbilly, but if you order a Caesar salad this way, your server will conclude that you are, at the very least, ill-educated and unrefined or, at worst, the progeny of a marriage by first cousins.

Whereas many restaurants do not find it necessary to fully describe the side or the Caesar salad, they will usually be more attentive to detail when delineating those things that combine to make up what most places call “specialty” salads. These are the items that their test kitchens spend a great deal of time perfecting. You may be familiar with them — they have names like “Spicy Asian Peanut Chicken Salad”, “Strawberry Field Greens”, and “Lobster Chunk Salad”. I cannot stress to you enough how important it is for those of you with a nut, strawberry, or shellfish allergy to familiarize yourself with the ingredients contained in these salads, do I? Really, it’s not “War and Peace” here. Simply absorbing the titles should be enough for you to decide whether or not you will need to read any further.

I cannot tell you how often I have served these types of salads, only to have the GUEST WHO ORDERED IT, flip out upon seeing a peanut or a strawberry or a shellfish product in their salad when they receive it. Come on, people. Take your heads out of your asses! How is your server supposed to know that the mere introduction of a peanut into your vicinity will throw you into anaphylaxis? And, by the way, and while we’re on the subject of severe nut allergies, most restaurant kitchens are not nut-free. Not by a long shot. Just so you know.

We cannot leave the SALAD area until we have covered the topic of salad dressings. Dressings available for salads are ALWAYS listed on the menu, usually in the section entitled SALAD. If a dressing is not listed in this area, it is NOT available and, again, we cannot make it for you. Also, if you never have anything on your salad other than ranch dressing, is it really necessary to make your server recite the dressings that are, once again, listed on the menu? I think not.

Finally, we come to all of you crazy dieters. This one’s for you. Dressing on the side is BY REQUEST. We are happy to dirty a ramekin, put it on a side plate, and juggle one more thing for you, but it would be nice to know you would like it this way BEFORE we bring it to the table. Also, have a little consideration, would you? Don’t make your server bring you another salad with the DRESSING ON THE SIDE, only to have us stand there and watch as you pour out (and scrape the sides of the monkey dish) every speck of the not very dietetic honey-mustard and plop it atop your salad. Hadn’t that already been done for you???? This is the type of behavior that drives servers crazy. CRAZY!

For many years and on most menus, a main dish was referred to as an entrée. Of late and as a result of the dumbing down of America, this is no longer the case. In fact, I have been forced to reach the sad conclusion, mostly due to the blank stares and confused looks that I have encountered when using the word entrée, that I must break myself of the habit that I have of asking folks if they are “ready to order their entrées?” Simply put and as was covered in the SOUP section, the use of foreign words and phrases must be avoided at all costs. Thus, in most mainstream dining establishments, one will more often than not, see that entrées are now referred to as main dishes. Old gals like myself, can still be heard, when not paying careful enough attention, referring to them as entrées.

MAIN DISHES are usually broken down into sections themselves and even (gasp!) into subsections. For example, under MEAT, one might find places where BEEF, CHICKEN, AND PORK reside. (If you frequently find yourself in establishments that also offer such delicacies as VEAL, LAMB, GOAT, or, even, DUCK — Bully for you! You probably also know what an entrée is!) You may also notice, depending upon they type of restaurant at which you are dining, areas reserved for such things as FISH and/or PASTA.

I am not going to get into all the finer points of Beef, like the very large difference in tenderness between, say, a filet mignon and a sirloin. I’ll just say this: let the price point be your guide here, folks. An item that is $9.99 (sirloin) will require a sharp steak knife and a full set of teeth. If you don’t know how to use the former and are not in possession of the latter, my advice to you is this: order the filet. It’s more expensive, but I guarantee you that you’ll find that you made the right choice while you’re eating it. Remember my advice about being seen as a hillbilly when we were discussing Caesar salad dressing? The same holds true for those of you who ask for a fat-less piece of Prime Rib or a Ribeye steak. Generally these cuts are hand-trimmed of a large portion of the fat that surrounds the beef prior to cooking, but they will never, ever be served without ANY fat at all. The flavor and the tenderness is in the fat. They are marbled cuts of meat, which means that the fat is not just present around their edges, but is “marbled” throughout the steak. Also, don’t ask, if you are ordering a bone-in steak, whether or not the weight includes the bone. It does, Hayseed, it does.! Also, the answer to your question as to whether or not we can remove the steak from the bone for you is “No!” This is the reason you will be provided with your very own cutting utensil. Although, whether a person such as yourself should be entrusted with a sharp object, is a real concern here.

Chicken, one would think, would be self-explanatory. But one should not jump to this conclusion or make such assumptions. If chicken is fried or on the bone, menus will clearly state this. Otherwise, look for such words as “grilled” or “baked” when making your selection. “Topped with” means just that. The chicken, however it is prepared, will be “topped with” something — tomatoes, cheese, arugula, bacon, etc. Chicken, being by it’s nature, a fairly dry and tasteless meat, is also, very often, not only “topped with” certain ingredients, but also, and sometimes in addition to being “topped with” things, finished with particular sauces. If you don’t like cream or cheese, I would recommend staying away from anything described as “Alfredo”. I know. It’s a minefield out there in Chicken World.

A brief word about pork may also be in order. Pork comes from pigs. I know that “Hamburger” would suggest that it’s made of ham, but it’s not. If you don’t know what a hamburger is, I don’t really think you belong being out in the world. Pork ribs are often described as “Baby Back Ribs” and are ALWAYS listed in the PORK section of the menu. Short ribs, on the other hand, are beef ribs and will ALWAYS be located in the BEEF section. Please STOP asking if the Pork ribs are beef. Just stop.

Most MAIN DISHES are accompanied by SIDES. These are things like starches, vegetables, and/or pastas. These choices are clearly identified. Every restaurant menu I have ever seen, somewhere under MAIN DISHES, will inform the consumer of their choices. Look for wording such as, “served with your choice of….” This will generally be a clue that SOMEWHERE, often not far from the MAIN DISHES, there will be an area where you can peruse and then choose which side dishes you would like to enjoy with your entrée. (Oops! There I go again!)

The choices will not change from person to person. This is important to note, particularly when you are dining in a large group. If you choose not to read the menu because you are too busy catching up with Uncle Charley, then at least LISTEN as the server asks EVERYONE in the party which SIDE dishes he or she would like with their MAIN DISH.

Normally MAIN DISHES come with a starch and a vegetable or a salad. Starches often include, but are not limited to, potatoes, rice or pasta. While selections vary from restaurant to restaurant, they are food items that should be familiar to anyone who has lived on the planet for more than a few years. Why people feel it necessary to ask how a “Baked Potato” is prepared is, honestly, beyond me. Also, I know there is a big push these days for the “Sweet Potato Fry”, but not all restaurants make them. Don’t just order what you think is available. Either read about or listen to your options. Try to make use of the tools that you have been given to prepare for the onslaught of questions the server will ask you regarding SIDE DISHES. Please. I cannot stress this enough. I really can’t.

I simply do not have the energy anymore to explain what pie is. It’s fruit that is encrusted in pastry dough and baked in an oven. That’s about the size of it. You don’t like cooked fruit? Or pastry dough? Don’t order the pie.

And, really, unless you are at Friendly’s or someplace of that nature, places known for their vast number of ice cream flavors, Rocky Road is not going to be an option. Sometimes you’ll be lucky to get anything other than vanilla bean. Drive over to The Dairy Queen if you want greater selections.

Most desserts come with whipped cream. The menu tells you this and the pictures show you this (because dessert menus almost always have photographs — as a way to entice you to order them!). If you don’t like whipped cream, we’ll be happy to leave it off — if you let us know BEFORE you order the “Whipped Cream Delight”. Thanks.

And, no, we cannot take the nuts out of the brownie. That’s how they come in. Deal with it. Or don’t order dessert. Most of you don’t need the additional calories, anyway.

I hope, for all of our sakes, that this information helps you, or a loved one, or an idiotic co-worker, more fully enjoy your next dining experience. I really do. Otherwise, this has been a gigantic waste of two hours of my time. Seriously.

photo credits:
customer looking at a menu

12 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Navigating a Restaurant Menu

  1. leah j. wolfe says:

    Damned informative. We get the same lot at our place.
    “Please STOP asking if the Pork ribs are beef. Just stop.” This one got you an out loud laugh.
    Bless you for your service.


  2. Oh my goodness!! This is so hilarious! You need to send this in to Reader’s Digest or the New York Times!!!


  3. Anybody confusing something called ‘Raspberry Zest’ with true tea is clearly deranged, and I’d be having some harsh words with their attendants if I were you.


  4. peachyteachy says:

    You are a professor of the menu. I think that this could be a huge e-book. I mean a small, huge e-book. The subtitle: We Don’t Speak Paleo Here.


    • javaj240 says:

      You know, Peach, I never stopped to consider that something as simple as a language barrier could be the issue here.

      Although the native English-speaking population is shrinking in my neck of the woods. Still, I would imagine that menus the world over use similar formats!


  5. Audrey says:

    Oh my… You have my most sincere condolences if you’re having to explain these kinds of basics during your service. So frustrating!
    I used to do sales and customer service for a small cellular service company and it was the same deal. We had a beautifully printed outline of all the available phone plans and let the clients look them over. And then they would ask me how much for x amount of minutes, etc. It makes you weep for humanity sometimes….


    • javaj240 says:

      I will admit that I may behave the same way in the face of cellular options, LOL! I always feel like they are trying to rip me off or that I will make the wrong decision and have to live with it for X# of years. Making changes to my cell plan (which I have to do tonight, as luck would have it) is fraught with anxiety. I’ll try not to ask any stupid questions while I am there —- I can’t guarantee it, though.

      Unlike decisions regarding one’s cell phone plan, people who choose the wrong potato can relatively easily and quickly rectify their problem. Plus, they won’t be forced to ONLY eat a Baked Potato for the next couple of years.

      And, yes… I am faced with this kind of idiocy each and every day. I spend — what probably amounts to well over 24 hours a year —which is entirely too much time — pointing out the obvious. It always feels like I’m just burning daylight.

      I take a few minutes out each day to weep for humanity. Really, that’s all one can do anymore.


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