It’s mind boggling how many people that go into a restaurant can botch up something so simple as reading a menu.  If you’ve ever worked in the food service industry (aka, ever been perceived as the scum of the earth), you can testify to the fact that diners, in general, are morons. Admittedly, some menus may be more confusing than others, or you might be dining outside your normal fast food budget range, but with a few helpful hints and taking your time with the menu, you won’t turn out to be the kind of menu-moron waiters would like to ban from the restaurant.

Prices

You would think that pricing on a menu would be a pretty straight-forward thing, right? Oh, how wrong you are. This is an issue in the finest of restaurants all the way down to the lowliest of fast food joints. There are a few different elements to the phenomenon of price un-comprehension. One is the full size/half size element. Many people will skim that and order the sandwich, or salad. They’ll be pleased with the portion, only to want to kill their poor waiter when the check comes because they are paying $2-$3 more than they thought they would be paying for the dish. Well, guess what, Genius? You ordered the full size because in most restaurants, it is assumed you want the full sized salad or the full sandwich because that’s how Americans roll. But when you ordered this, you also failed to look below the first price. The first price on the majority of menus lists the half size portion. The line below, or the next price will show the proper price, but you didn’t bother looking past the great deal you thought you were getting. This happens more often than it should.

Another pricing miscue usually affects those who are going out to a nicer restaurant when they are used to joints like Chili’s. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Chili’s, but their menu reads a little different than say, an upscale French restaurant with 150 wines on their list. The problem with this type of menu hitch is the prices won’t have dollar signs listed. There will just be a number beside the item. Such as: Filet Mignon 24

Naturally, the unassuming orderer will ask for the #24 and the waiter will take pleasure in telling them that is the price and not the order number. This has two elements to it: the diner didn’t even think that if the menu item was numbered like combo meals are, it would be on the left, not far to the right of the item. And they were completely oblivious that there are 5 more #24’s in the steak section.

The last price trap are the menus that lists the price or prices for the entire category above the first item and then lists how much additions are. These menus are usually casual, but the same moronic questions still drive waiters crazy: “Hey, where are the prices?” “How much is this?” It’s quite simple, really. You didn’t read the menu. These days a lot of people are on budgets and when they sit down and decide what they want, they then want to know the price. Every menu is different, but the price will be there…unless you are in a restaurant where prices don’t matter. Then you’ll probably just order off the menu anyway.

Additions, Subtractions, Dressings, and Condiments

There is that rare place that does not allow changes (Father’s Office in Santa Monica, CA is one) and comes one way and one way only. But you know what you’re getting into when you step into a place like that anyway. What we’re talking about here is the lack of being able to understand what you can and cannot do as far as additions, dressings, and condiments go. The menu will guide you so pay attention.

Additions/subtractions — also known as substitutions — that are allowed will be listed on some menus, but not on all. Adding chicken or shrimp to a salad is simple and can be done in 90% of the places you dine in, but taking something like peppers out of a sauce is impossible because sauces are pre-made. Sure, this is not stated on the menu, but this is where you have to use something we like to call common sense. You cannot take something out of dressings, sauces, condiments, or anything else that is likely pre-made. Ditching the anchovies on a pizza is fine or holding the mayo on a sandwich, but look at the menu’s fine print. Oftentimes it will tell you what you can or cannot substitute.

Condiments won’t always be listed on a menu, but if they are not, you can kind of get an idea what kind of condiments are available to you. Salt and pepper will always be there. Ketchup and mustard won’t usually be in an Italian or Mexican joint. Search your menu for available condiments and if you don’t see any listed, look around you. And if you still don’t see any, then — and only then — ask your waiter. This rule doesn’t really cover dressings, however. Dressings used to be mainly for salads, but they have morphed into dipping sauces for fries, sandwiches, and a variety of other things we can only hope are edible. Dressings are almost always listed on a menu but every waiter will tell you what is one of the main questions they get…”what dressings do you have?” If you do not see dressings listed in the salad section (make sure to look above the salad section, too), look near the end of the menu for the Sides section — or around there. The dressings are usually listed in one of these places, so take a look so you can be able to order properly.

That is, of course if you do not see dressings listed with the salad choices. If you see this:  Your choice of dressing

But you do not see choices listed in the salad section, then you need to flip through the menu — yes, you will be in the type of place where they will have a flip-through menu — in order to find where the dressing selection will be listed. Unfortunately, menus will require you to reference various portions of the menu in order to do it up properly, but that is something you should know and be prepared for. 

Meats

This section can be tricky because most people think meats are all encompassing. Don’t go to the ‘meats’ and expect to find lobster or salmon (pronounce sa’mon, by the way). Meats will cover things like beef and pork for most menus. Elk, moose, and raccoon, if you live up in the sticks. If you are hankering for seafood, but there is not a seafood section, look for the house specialties or favorites sections. Chicken should be in the poultry section or the house special section, but alas, way too many eaters point to the meat section and ask their waiter if they serve chicken up in this beeotch.

There are also the places that have “them there fancy meats”. Those with names most have never heard of and some cannot pronounce. For instance, if you see: Pastor or Carnitas

And you don’t live in Southern California, what do you think you might be ordering? The answer is pork. Pastor is shredded pork. Carnitas is…okay, the point is to bone up on your meats (hehe) before you go out to eat. Meats come in many varieties, including ossobuco, veal, ovis, caprae, venison, angus, snake, and human (just kidding, cannibals). Do your homework on meats so you can understand the menu. Veal (and ossobuco) is a meat from calves and ovis is from sheep. Venison is from Bambi, angus is a prime slice of beef and snake is…snake. But you will likely be ducking in a restaurant that will throw few curve balls on the menu. If the item is listed under meats — or if it is listed in the same category as meats — but you do not know what it is, if will not be chicken or seafood. And if you do not know what it is, don’t order it anyway.

Another thing to look for on your menu is the temperatures. A general rule of almost all restaurants is to cook the meats to medium, but there are the rare few — no pun intended — that cook only to medium rare. And on the flip side, there are some dishes that are prepared well done or at least medium well. If you like a little blood in your mouth, make sure pay attention to your menu and make that request to your waiter.

Sides

This is a “how to eat out for dummies” section. Everyone knows you can substitute the baked potato for fries (provided the restaurant does sell fries) or the asparagus for green beans. Read the fine print below the entree — usually in italics — for what goes with it. Generally, entrees will come with a vegetable and starch, but occasionally with fruit (usually at lunch). If you want to mix and match, graze over the other entree selections and see what they have to offer. If you see: Monte Cristo Sandwich with french fries and a pickle and Chicken Sandwich with french fries and a radish

Let us know, because a restaurant that serves a radish with fries and chicken is awesome. Seriously, though, look at the other items if you do not like what your choice is going to be served with. If you still don’t see what you are looking for, make sure to spend some time on the ‘sides’ section. Occasionally, you will find a gem or two that does not exist anywhere else on the menu.

Sometimes — mainly at lunch — entrees will only serve up one side. If you are famished or just trying to make yourself fatter than you already are, look closely at the menu and make sure you are getting two sides. If not, you’ll have to make another selection or add another side. If you are adding a third side, you might need to see a psychiatrist about that eating disorder.

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