Not so special
Ever notice how restaurant servers push the special of the day? Their reasons may be more economic than culinary. "When I go out to eat at other restaurants, I never order the specials," says executive chef and owner Alberto Morreale of Farmer's Bottega, in San Diego. "Some restaurants put together their specials for the day based on what's about to expire or what they're trying to get rid of faster." Instead, he asks the server to recommend something made with local ingredients, or what arrived fresh that day. Don't miss these secrets waiters will never tell you.
Say no to chicken
If you're the type who bastes your roasting chicken every 15 minutes, you probably won't enjoy eating it out in restaurants. "I will order almost anything when I go out—but never chicken because it tends to be overcooked at most restaurants," confides Ryan Ososky, executive chef of the modern American cuisine restaurant The Church Key, in West Hollywood. Ososky is not alone in his no-to-chicken stance. According to the Food Network's website, chefs avoid ordering chicken in restaurants for many reasons, including overinflated price and lack of originality. Chicken is one of many foods chefs prefer cooked at home. Pasta and comfort foods such as grilled cheese also top the list.
Unless you can smell the salty air, bypass oysters
Since most fish markets don't deliver on weekends, the don't-eat-fish-on-Monday debate continues to rage on between freshness-loving chefs. Many avoid it like the plague, but others are comfortable ordering fish, if the restaurant has a coastal location or is known for seafood. When it comes to oysters, however, all bets are off, at least according to Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Mark Nichols. Nichols, who owns the high-end catering service JC's Catering, won't go near raw oysters if they were harvested more than 100 miles away from the restaurant serving them. "If handled and stored incorrectly, raw oysters can kill you," he explains. Not exactly the evening you were looking for when you made that reservation.
Love fresh food? Size up the menu before you order
Chain restaurants, or ones with huge menus, may cut down on family fights at the table, but it also means skimping on fresh ingredients. If you want fresh, local ingredients, these are establishments you should probably avoid. "I typically stay away from large chains because everything is usually brought in frozen once or twice a week," says Nichols. "I also always look at the size of the menu. If it's more than two pages long, they have to keep a large inventory of food. More than likely, you're not getting a fresh meal.
The (leftover) staff of life
Warm and toasty, served with sweet butter or olive oil, the bread basket that graces your restaurant table may be fresh from the oven, or reheated, after gracing another's table. Short of fingerprinting each scone, you will never know for sure unless you catch your server in the act. You may love to indulge in those carby delights, but many chefs will tell you to beware before you bite. Not only are those delicious loaves full of carbs and calories, but they may also be full of germs from the diner who just left. Here are some other things folks in the restaurant biz warn against eating in restaurants.
Vegetable dishes can be extraordinary culinary feats—or ordinary, ho-hum, and uninventive. Given the cacophony of colors, textures, and flavors that vegetables have to offer, you'd think they'd be the stars of many restaurant menus, but not so, say chefs in the know. "When I go to a restaurant and sit with a menu, I tend to stay away from the House Salad," says Kayson Chong, Los Angeles-based executive chef of The Venue. "I prefer to have something special that a chef created with seasonal products and interesting combinations. I like experiencing new and exciting things to eat when I go to other restaurants, not something I can find easily anywhere." Michelin-starred chef Suvir Saran, who owns the Indian-inspired restaurant, Tapestry, in New York City, tends to avoid the chef's vegetarian plate even though he's a lover of all things vegetable. "They are never true representations of what a chef would really be inspired to present to a guest," he explains. "I would much rather order from the appetizer section and sides, and make my own meal." Among the vegetables Saran won't order out are squash and pumpkin. "Most chefs raised in the U.S. have a very different understanding of what these vegetables are. To palates raised east of the U.S., these vegetables are never served sweet. Chefs from around the world use heat to bring out their natural sweetness, never like squash overtly laced in sugar, that you typically find in America," he says.
Some germs with your cocktail?
Even if you're starving while waiting for your table to be ready, avoid nibbling on bar snacks with that pre-dinner cocktail. The bowls are rarely washed between patrons, so you can pretty much be assured that many fingers other than your own have already dipped into the nut or pretzel bowl. Chefs don't want you picking away at your pre-dinner appetite or picking up the flu while you're waiting to be served.