A special someone deserves dinner at the best restaurant in town, right? Not necessarily, but some nights you have to pretend that’s true because your date already made a reservation at a place about 50 times fancier than where you would ever go. Not only do you have to worry about who gets the bill, you also have to figure out what wine to order and how to pronounce foie gras. Here, the easy way to upgrade your restaurant life without getting worked into a tizzy.
Know What You’re Working With
Menus can range from prix fixe to a la carte to a tasting or chef’s menu. The cheat sheet: A la carte is standard, meaning you pay for each item separately. Prix fixe menus give one (often high) price that covers the entire meal, usually minus drinks, and you get to select items from a limited set of options. And a chef’s or tasting menu means that for another (high) price, you get a number of courses that were pre-selected by the chef. The downside to chef’s menus is that you don’t have any say over what’s about to be served and substitutions usually aren’t allowed.
Ask questions, lots of questions
Many a diner has been surprised when they ordered sweetbread and instead of a dinnertime French Toasty treat they got a plate of organ meat. You know what could have stopped that from happening? A question.
Here are a few key ones to say to your server: What’s your favorite dish? How much is the special? What would you recommend? And, of course, what is a sweetbread? “Waiters and waitresses are there to help you, don’t be afraid to ask,” says Benjamin “BJ” Dennis, a Charleston-based chef who has been working in restaurants since he was 19-years-old and still has lots of questions.
Certain words seem like they were intentionally written in a way to make you sound like you had marbles in your mouth. And then there are ones like foie gras (“fwa grah”) and hors d’oeuvres (“or dervs”)—why so many letters and so few sounds?
As menus continue to throw in words they know few Americans can pronounce or even identitfy, accept that you are probably going to say a few incorrectly. “I’m a chef and there are menus I look at and don’t know how to pronounce everything,” says Dennis, who admits to being stumped by some pasta names at Italian restaurants.
If you come across something that you are not even going to attempt, just say the English translation usually included in the description (so a straightforward “I’ll have the chicken” instead of “I’ll have the poulet”). If there isn’t any English on the menu, after realizing the restaurant is unnecessarily pretentious, just ask your server, “What is this?” It will probably be the 20th time they’ve explained that night.
Always Win with the Wine
“If you know the difference between a pinot grigio and a pinot noir, that’s cool. But if you don’t, its also fine,” insists Dennis. He says stick with what you do know: your tastebuds. “Tell your server, ‘Hey, I’d like a good red wine. I like it on the sweeter end,’ or whatever describes what you want.”
It’s also fine to ask for a recommendation—and if you find something that is your new favorite, write the name down in the “notes” app on your phone so you can order it next time or find it at a shop. The top thing not to do is to order the most expensive wine. Just because you can’t afford it doesn’t mean you’ll like it.