Picture it: You crack open the menu at the new local hot spot and immediately set your eyes on the perfect main course—say, salmon with curried spinach. You're ready to order until you spy yet another enticing option—a three-cheese baked pasta with porcini and radicchio. And there are a lot of dessert options. You can't possibly eat it all, but choosing between them is giving you a serious stomachache.
Don't shut your menu in frustration. Instead, check out these seven expert tips for how to choose the right meal from an overwhelming number of delicious options.
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1. Go with your gut.
Like, literally. "Let yourself naturally gravitate to the dishes that grab your eye instantly—and if you need additional help, start searching for ingredients you love," says chef Chris Santos. For Santos, who helms The Stanton Social and Beauty & Essex, never passing up a menu item with mustard, and saying no to those that don't. "I order anything that has mustard in its description," he says.
2. Look for seasonal items.
Say you're conflicted over a summer dessert selection: Let a fruit pie take precedent over placing an order for a cheesecake. Here's why, according to mixologist Adam Seger: "Menu listings highlighting ingredients that are at their peak and may not be offered next time you return to this establishment," he points out. "A seasonal dish will edge out a core dish that sounds just as good."
3. Stick to the theme.
Most restaurants have a specialty, and sticking to ordering those items can help remove so-so snacks from your must-eat list. For example, "do not order fish at a steakhouse or steak at a seafood restaurant," says Ben Lefenfeld, chef of La Cuchara in Baltimore. "There is a reason they focus on a type of cuisine."
4. Foster relationships.
We're not talking about with the person across the table. Rather, "keep you eye out for items that have a farm or place of origin description," instructs Seger, and order those first. "These represent special vendor relationships to the restaurant and ... [an] ingredient that they are proud to highlight," he says.
5. Pace yourself.
If you can't choose a single dish, choose many and progress down the menu naturally, advises David Bazirgan, Bambara's executive chef. That means starting with an appetizer or a small plate, then ordering a vegetable or fresh salad, and finishing the meal, if you still have room, with pasta, fish, or meat. "If you order a small amount at a time and create your own tasting menu, it's easier to stop when you feel full," he says, "and to get a sense for every part of a menu."
6. Get the server's recommendation.
In other words, let the guy or gal who's in-the-know choose for you. "An experienced server is your closest ally in navigating a foreign or overwhelming menu," says Lefenfeld. Plus, he points out, "there may be opportunities to order a half portion of several dishes to try multiple offerings, or there may be a dish that is an absolute must that they can recommend."
7. Be adventurous.
As a last resort, if you still can't choose, select the menu item that seems the most adventurous. "Start off with a couple of challenging dishes to share at the beginning, items that both sound challenging to be prepared perfectly and that may stretch what you normally would try," advises Seger.