When Is It Appropriate to Ask for Menu Substitutions?

By Andrew Knowlton

Dear BA Foodist,

My mom is not the world's best dining companion. Despite my protests, she makes special menu requests every time we dine out--grilled fish instead of sauted, mashed potatoes instead of fries, no bacon in the pasta carbonara. Is it just me, or are such requests totally out of line?


Fremont Beery, St. Louis

Dear Fremont,

My professional and personal opinions differ. On the one hand, restaurants are in the hospitality business (which some of them need to be reminded of from time to time). If someone requests a simple salad's dressing on the side, or mashed potatoes instead of french fries, or grilled fish with lemon, a restaurant should accommodate its guests. Things get a bit murkier when you're dining at a restaurant that is driven by the vision of one chef--for instance, Alinea in Chicago or Eleven Madison Park in New York. I'll leave it to you, intelligent reader, to decide when it's appropriate to ask for substitutions. Personally, however, when I'm seated next to someone like your mother, I have to wonder why that person is dining out in the first place. If everything must be prepared to your exact specifications, why not just cook it yourself? You can't take the bacon out of pasta carbonara because it would then cease to be pasta carbonara. Removing the onions from a crab cake isn't as easy as you may think. So, in general, when it comes to substitutions and special orders, I'll allow that you have the right to ask within reason. But if you happen to be sitting next to me, expect a disapproving look.

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