If It's Not on the Menu, It's Not an Option and Other Advice from a Longtime Waiter

A menu is not just a table decoration or a whimsical suggestion, and yet people choose to ignore them all the dang time. Also? Wash your hands after you touch one.

A server speaks to a patron and prepares to take an order
Photo: Getty Images

When you go to a restaurant, the menu is your friend. Be it a laminated book, a QR code, or chicken scratch on a faraway chalkboard, it's there for you and it has but one purpose. It's your guide for the culinary adventure you are about to embark upon. Don't ignore it. Ingest it and let the words of that menu wash over you because they are as important as the text on the Rosetta Stone. The menu will unlock the mysteries of what the restaurant has to offer you. Honor its significance and respect what the menu can do for you.

Receive the menu however it comes to you.

A lot of restaurants are now relying on the convenience of QR codes for their menus. We can thank Covid for that just like we can thank it for less handshaking and no more blowing out birthday candles on a cake everyone's about to share. Like it or not, QR codes are here to stay. They're much more affordable for restaurants because they don't have to be reprinted every time there's a menu change. Your phone is sitting on the table anyway and you're probably going to take a picture of your dessert later, so why not embrace your phone as the portal to the menu? Having the menu on your phone lets you zoom in for a better view which you can't do on a physical menu when the font is small enough to be printed on a grain of rice. And let's be honest, who among us hasn't found ourselves placing our fingers on the page of a magazine or book and then moving them out in a futile attempt at enlarging what we're reading?

If you are dead set against looking at the menu on your phone, tell your server. They'll happily dig through the drawer of forgotten credit cards, 8-track tapes, and dinosaur bones to find you an actual menu. Be warned: it might be carved into a stone tablet.

Read the menu.

Before you ask your server a baseless question like, "What do you have to drink?" look at the menu and see if the answer is there for you. Chances are good that it is. Sure, the waiter can rattle off a litany of beverages from tap water to cocktails, but they don't have time for that. Besides, after they announce the tenth beer that's offered on tap, you will already have forgotten the first one.

Want to know what's in the arugula, bleu cheese, and pear salad? Look at the words and interpret the meaning of them. Questioning your salad dressing options? Scan the menu until your eyes fall on something that says "salad dressing options." Your server has all of this knowledge as well, but if they aren't at your table you'll have to come up with a way to decipher what you can order. If only there was some way for customers to have all of that information at their fingertips. Oh, wait, they do.

Accept the limits of the menu.

The menu is not a suggestion of what the kitchen might be able to make for you; it's a finite list of what you can choose from. Of course you can ask for a substitution here and there. No one is going to bemoan the fact that you don't want tomato on your BLT and would rather have extra lettuce instead. You might be a monster for leaving the tomato off, but no one is going to explicitly say anything about it. Well, to your face, anyway. The menu is not a grocery list that you can peruse to pick and choose items from different entrees to create your own meal. Just because the restaurant has ground beef for burgers and marinara sauce for chicken Parmesan and pasta and butter on the kids menu doesn't mean you can ask the kitchen to whip up some spaghetti and meatballs. It's very doubtful there's a secret menu in existence that you need to ask about. If it's not on the menu, it's not an option.

But for the love of all that is holy, wash your hands after you touch the menu.

After you have ordered your food and no longer need the menu, pull out the Purell and go to town. Bathe your hands in bleach. Douse your digits in disinfectant. The only thing in a restaurant that's more germy than a physical menu is a highchair. Menus fall to the floor pretty regularly and they end up right back on the table. Some hands that hold them haven't touched soap in days. Some parents use them as placemats for their toddler. The menus might get wiped down once or twice a day by an overzealous hostess or a really bored waiter, but for the most part they're dirtier than a Martini with way too much olive juice. Your hands deserve a washing after handling them. Even if you use the QR code to access the menu, go wash your hands anyway because the only thing more germy than a restaurant highchair is your cell phone.

Menus are the key to a successful meal. Using one will unlock the door to the kitchen and result in a rewarding dining experience. A restaurant without menus would just be one of those fancy places where the chef chooses what you eat and you end up with sweetbreads and tiny vegetables you've never seen before. Use the menu wisely. And seriously, go wash your hands.

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