What to do If You Can't Understand a Menu
Not speaking a language should never keep you from good food.
Travel is illuminating and exciting, but it can offer some challenges, specifically, for those who aren't polyglots, around language. And while taking the time to learn the language of your travel destination is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, it's not always possible. For those who don't speak a second or third language, it can throw up barriers in many places, from airport signage to check-in desks at small hotels, and, almost certainly at restaurants.
"If you don't speak the language, it can be intimidating to read and order from [some] menus," says Sharon Schweitzer, international etiquette expert and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. "
Whether you have an allergy—to, say, peanuts—that you must avoid, or you're a just picky eater who can't handle spicy peppers, you might be worried about ordering from a menu from which you can't read every word or understand the description.
"For example, diners with a nut allergy would not want to inadvertently order a dish with cashews or peanuts," says Schweitzer. "Or a diner may have a diet that doesn't include pork, beef, or dairy products, so knowing which dishes have these ingredients is crucial."
But just because you can't (completely) understand a menu written in a language you don't speak doesn't mean you can't order from it. Rather, you can order with confidence. Here's how.
Know what you want before you go.
Before you board a plane for a country that speaks a language you're unfamiliar with, check out the website of a restaurant you plan to go to, advises Schweitzer. "Most eateries now have websites that outline their menus, which makes [the experience] easier—even before you have left your own country."
Bring an appetite and your phone.
If you don't speak the language—or you're not confident you know it well enough to decipher every descriptive word—then don't leave your Wi-Fi connection without downloading a translation app, such as Google Translate, iTranslate, or WayGo, says Schweitzer. You can "use these tools when ordering with a server," Schweitzer says. Another surefire way to get what you want is to save photos to your smartphone of food you know you want to try—fish, for example—and show them to your server.
Ask for another menu.
Many cities highly traficked by non-native speakers create alternate menus specifically to cater to them, Schweitzer points out. "Destinations, including capital cities such as Paris, Madrid, and Berlin, may have an English translation of the menu, so don't be afraid to ask whether you can see this instead." More likley than not, a server will be happy to show you a different menu.
Ask your hotel for help.
Your hotel's concierge can do more than recommend the best restaurants in town to you. "Many concierge maintain a collection of menus translated into English," says Schweitzer. And if they don't already have one stashed away, they can also call your chosen restaurant to check whether an English menu is available. Lastly, in cases where an English menu won't be ready at your table, a concierge could "ask the restaurant to email an English menu, [even] several months in advance," she says.
Take a chance.
When all else fails, roll the proverbial food dice. "If you don't understand the menu items, and you're confident that you are not allergic to anything, be adventurous," suggests Schweitzer. "Maybe it'll be the best dish you've ever tasted."