....without being a pain....
I am writing this post at the request of Wendy from Celiacs in the House, who was wondering how best to deal with her special requests in restaurants - she wanted to be sure her needs were met without being a pain (we Midwesterners are so nice).
No problem, I said! We will all be better off with our needs met! So lets talk about a few ways to make everyone happier when dealing with special requests.
First off, assuming your server has been working in the industry at least 5 months, chances are they've heard everything. And I do mean everything. I've waited on guests who insist nothing on their plate touches the other items, grown men who never ate anything other than plain buttered noodles, guests with cancer who had their dinner pureed in the robotcoup and served in a pint glass with a straw, and one lady who required one dish of balsamic vinegar, and one dish of freshly grated Parmesan: every single bite she ate would be dipped first into the vinegar, and then into the cheese, no matter what it was. It was immaterial what Chef was offering that evening, she would be eating fish with vegetables (never, ever a piece of bread or a potato!) dipped into Balsamic and cheese. (She was skinny, so clearly this diet plan works.)
- When possible, make your situation known when making your reservation. This is especially easy with online systems such as Open Table or other online reservation systems. If you are making a reservation over the phone, simply let the person in your party has a special need (and then let them know what it is). Knowing in advance is always better, because the restaurant can prepare more fully and offer something great - especially if the request is more challenging, such as a vegan request.
Once you are in the restaurant, here are some guidelines....
- State your needs in plain English or, if you have a complicated situation, carry a business card with you stating your needs. Before Celiac disease was as widely-known as it is today, I waited on a woman who carried a small laminated card with her outlining her needs. It was especially helpful because many people mistakenly believe rice has gluten, and her card outlined what she could have. Say "I am a vegan," "I have Celiac," "I have a deathly nut allergy." I find it's easier to begin with this broad statement, and then explain as necessary. Most (good) servers are familiar with all sorts of disorders and special requests. If the server stares blankly at you, feel free to expand.
- Separate true allergies from dislikes or intolorences. This is a huge irritation in the restaurant business, because there are relatively few true allergies, and those are incredibly serious: when someone says "I have a peanut allergy," we listen up, because most people are aware that a peanut allergy with an anaphylactic reaction could mean a guest dying in your restaurant, and no one wants that to happen (and while I've been, in a completely typical macabre way, completely fascinated by the idea of giving someone an emergency tracheotomy my entire life, I don't really want to test my skills in real life).
It always amazes me how many people are allergic to garlic and onions, considering few people truly are. Saying you are allergic to these things puts the restaurant in a bit of a pickle, because if you are dining in a restaurant where everything or nearly everything is made from scratch, chances are there are either garlic or onions in pretty much everything. This is because onions and garlic are delicious, and we put them in nearly every stock and sauce. I realize many people have GI or body aroma issues eating these things, but typically the garlic and onions used in stocks and sauces are barely detectable (in isolate); instead, they contribute to the greater deliciousness of the dish, and have been cooked pretty much to within an inch of their lives, and strained from the stock. It is perfectly acceptable to say "please do not add any garlic or onions to my food," just in case these things are added when cooking vegetables or tossed into salad.
- Have realistic expectations. If you have Celiac disease and are eating in a traditional American style Italian restaurant where everything comes on pasta, be aware that it will be more difficult to dine than if you are eating in a restaurant where meat and potatoes are the focus. By the same token, if you are a vegan dining in a restaurant known for their usage of cream and pork, be aware they might not create the most elaborate vegan dish you've ever tried.
The items on the menu are there because the chef thinks those are what he does best; a case could be made that any chef worth his salt should be able to create something amazing and vegan, but the kitchen is an extremely busy and stressful place, and there isn't always time to come up with amazing new dishes on the fly. By the same token, chefs would be wise to keep a few special dishes up their sleeves so they don't have to worry over special requests.
- Let the restaurant know what you like, especially if you are going to require a dish completely different from anything on the menu. It's frustrating when the chef creates a special dish for someone, and they let you know after receiving it they don't like peppers, mushrooms, or squash. If all you want is a pound of steamed green beans with no seasoning, just let your server know.
- Your special request will be easiest to fulfill during less busy nights. Everyone in Columbus wants to eat at 7pm on Saturday, which makes 7:45-8:15pm Saturdays about the craziest half hour of the week. It's difficult to explain to those who have never worked in the restaurant business, but the tiniest mistake or mis-order can cause the entire house of cards to come crashing down. The busy restaurant is like a tight-rope walker trying to juggle flaming swords and swans at the same time - when it works, it's a beautiful thing; but the slightest nudge and it turns ugly fast. Obviously, you can't always control when you will be dining out, but you are certain to have a better experience on a Wednesday than a Saturday during peak.
- Show that you are brave: I waited on a woman the other day, and her statement when I greeted her was one of the best ways to get a good experience and caught me off guard. She said "what dishes on the menu could I have that would be the least altered with my [special needs]?" I thought this was such a great way to approach the situation because she was pretty much willing to try anything, and was more interested in maintaining the integrity of the chef's dish rather than making up her own.
- As a general rule, higher-end, made from scratch restaurants and mass-market chains are the safest bets. This is because higher end restaurants don't take as many shortcuts when making their food (thickening non-gravy sauces with flour is a big one here), and mass market chains don't want to be sued and their food is made in one commissary kitchen and then shipped out to the stores.
- Don't become frustrated if you are eating in a restaurant with a language barrier. If you can't communicate effectively with a server, and you find that frustrating, simply don't go. I remember reading someone who was going on and on about how horrible a local Mexican restaurant was (one of my favorites), because the servers couldn't speak English (to his satisfaction). They kept bringing him lemons when he asked for limes! How stupid could they be, he ranted! Well, to most Mexicans, a limon is a lime, and a lima is a lemon. So you can see how it could become a "who's on first" situation. In the restaurant, we frequently say "green limon" or "yellow limon" to distinguish the difference. If you love ethic foods, you might consider getting a card which is translated into the language of the restaurant where you are going, just so that things can be as clear as possible.
- Lastly, when you do get something surprisingly delicious within your needs, it's always nice to let your server, manager, and/or chef know! Becoming a regular in a restaurant is also a good thing, because as the staff gets to know you and your likes and needs, they can create special things just for you.
- Money talks. If your server goes out of their way to make you happy, reward them. If your server works with the chef to ensure you will have a great experience and you tip 15%, they have no incentive to go out of their way the next time. The verbal tip is always nice and appreciated, unfortunately your server's mortgage company does not accept compliments as payment.
So there you have it! Some thoughts for making everyone happy when you are dining with special needs! What other questions can I answer?