Going out to eat with my dad is like watching a champion chess player strategically pick his next move.
My father has owned restaurants for longer than I’ve been alive, so when it comes to dining out he knows his stuff. He takes his time analyzing the menu items, calling out the dishes with the best value – usually the ones that include seasonal ingredients, or cuts of meat or fish at competitive prices. He’ll do the same to the wine list, commenting on which wines are priced well, and laughing at the ones that are marked up way over their retail value. But he won’t make the call until he hears the specials, measuring them against the standard menu items and finally making his move.
When your father is a restaurateur, you learn a lot of insider dining tips. Here are eight of the best dining hacks I’ve learned from watching him order like a pro.
Ordering a whole fish comes with lots of tasty advantages. More flavor and less risk of being dried out, to name a few. But beyond the benefits for your palate, you’ll also know for sure that you’re getting the fish that you ordered. Some restaurants (not my dad’s!) will often try to pass off lesser quality filets that look identical to save money. For example, filets like striped bass are almost indistinguishable from tilefish, one of the cheapest fish restaurants can buy at just $3 per pound. If you’re forking over 30 bucks for the striped bass special, you want to be sure your fork is filled with the right fish, am I right?
You might know that not all cuts of meat are created equal. But when it comes to getting the best cut of meat for your dollar while dining out, it’s important to not be fooled by lesser cuts of meat that have the word “special” slapped onto them. One common example: a rack of lamb, pork or veal is a better cut of meat than a loin, and should always be the more expensive item on the menu. Restaurants will often try to pass off a “loin special” at the same price or even more than a rack. Don’t be fooled!
If there’s a pasta dish that’s calling out to you on the menu, but you don’t want to commit to an entire dish of it, ask for a half order. Aside from avoiding a major food coma, half orders of pasta end up being a great deal. Pasta half orders are almost always larger than what half the pasta dish would actually measure out to, since restaurants often don’t have a standard bowl or plate measurement for half orders as it’s not a standard menu item. It’s also almost always half the price, if not a dollar or two more than half.
Your waiter asks if you want to hear the specials, and rattles off a series of delicious descriptions that make your mouth water. What you don’t know? Sometimes restaurant specials are just dishes filled with ingredients that the chef is looking to get rid of. How can you spot the difference? Look for seasonal specials, like soft shell crab or summer vegetable pasta. These dishes are likely listed as specials because they contain ingredients that are in season and are therefore a good buy for the restaurant – not because the restaurant is trying to clean out their refrigerator.
Unless you’re really, seriously only going to drink one glass of wine, ordering a bottle is always the better value. The markup in pricing for a glass of wine is much higher than the markup for a bottle, because wines by the glass tend to be easier for restaurants to move. Because of this, most servers won’t suggest ordering a bottle for the table, since rounds of wine by the glass end up costing the table more by the end of the meal. There are even some frugal restaurant owners (again, not my dad!) who will use leftover bottles of wine from other tables to serve wines by the glass out of.
If you’re trying to impress friends or a date when ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant, chances are you’re not going to choose the least expensive bottle on the menu in an effort to not seem cheap. Restaurant owners also know this, so often times the second least expensive bottle of wine is actually the worst buy, because they’ve listed it at a price with a much higher markup than the cheapest bottle. Instead of picking a bottle at random, it’s not a bad idea to do a quick Google search of your options to see what they actually retail for to get the best vino for your dollar.
If worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to finish the entire bottle of wine is stopping you from pulling the trigger, you can always take it to go. No, seriously. Once you’ve paid the bill, most restaurants are happy to cork your leftover wine and send it home with you. When tightly re-corked, opened wine stays good for three-four days. You’ll get the better deal and be able to finish your bottle at your leisure.
If you’re planning to treat yourself to dessert, ask your server which items are made on premises. Most restaurants offer a few homemade desserts and buy the rest. Meaning, you might end up spending money on a pre-made, store-bought cake or pastry when you could be having a better quality, homemade dessert. Take it a step further and ask which dessert is the chef’s favorite. There’s likely one standout option that’s considered the chef’s specialty.