Ordering Side Dishes as Appetizers is Lame

side dishes

Waiters are accustomed to dealing with people’s dietary peculiarities when they order. Some guests find joy in manipulating the menu to suit their needs or their budget. It comes with the territory, so servers learn to live with guests who dedicate themselves to finding loopholes to exploit. We understand that a menu is a template for success not a rule book, but of course—like everything in hospitality—some guests take more liberties than others.

There will be guests who request to have their salad served after their entrees because they think it makes them seem more cosmopolitan. It doesn’t. Others will order appetizers as their entrees because they prefer to eat light. It’s not ideal, but it’s forgivable. Occasionally, you have a table that cobbles together small plates into a meal or asks you to course their food in an unorthodox way. It’s pointless to resist. Just give ‘em what they want.

But one menu hack that most servers find intolerable is when a guest orders a side dish as an appetizer. Although there are exceptions, the decision to order a side dish as a first course is often a veiled attempt to game the menu for a cheaper alternative to the appetizer choices. Even the most well-intentioned guests come across completely obnoxious when they do it.

Naysayers will bristle and scorn at the elitism of presuming that menu items should only be served at the times of the meal that they are intended to be. They’ll say if people want a small dish as their appetizer, it’s their prerogative. Why should you ostracize those people, even if the decision is a financial one? These are all valid points. But just because you can do something in a restaurant doesn’t necessarily make it right. You shouldn’t order a sandwich, ask for more bread and then make a second sandwich by redistributing what’s inside the first one. Yet some people do.

Implicit in these choices is a disregard for the experience that a restaurant is trying to craft for its guests. You have no obligation to honor that framework, but if you don’t you may be perceived as someone who abuses privilege.

So follow the template that’s given to you, if you can. It’s better to have the side dish come alongside your main course (as it was intended to be) instead of having it come beforehand even if it means you’ll end up waiting longer or feeling out of place while your tablemates enjoy their appetizers. After all, it wouldn’t be called a side dish if it was meant to be the center of attention. Accepting that will make you a better diner.

There’s No Such Thing as Medium Rare “Plus”

steak temperatures

Classic French cooking approaches steak temperatures with a simple elegance. There are four basic ways the French order steak. Bleu means very rare, quickly seared on each side. Saignant, literally meaning bloody, is a bit more cooked than bleu, but still quite rare. À Point implies “perfectly cooked” (the closest to our Medium Rare) and Bien Cuit, well done. The French don’t fuss with superfluous language around ordering meat; you like your steak one way or the other. The behavior is anchored in a tradition of respect for the chef’s expertise and deference to the talent in the kitchen.

Americans aren’t able to speak so abstractly about cooking meat and are more suspicious of the chef’s faculties. To make steak temperatures more scrutable, restaurants (with the blessing of the USDA) devised a vernacular to help diners better understand the different gradations of doneness. The approach is rather dogmatic with five concrete meat temperatures, now ubiquitous: Rare, Medium Rare, Medium, Medium Well and Well Done. Restaurant chefs have adhered to this scale for generations but they are a constant source of headaches for hospitality professionals. No matter how streamlined these guidelines have become, there will always be differences in perception around how we should define them.

Today’s diners are becoming increasingly nuanced about how they like their meat cooked. As palates become more sophisticated, defining proper meat temperatures has evolved into a significantly more complicated conversation. It’s disturbingly common to hear guests request “plus” temperatures, meaning they want their meat cooked a shade in between two standard ones. “Medium Rare Plus” implies they like their steak cooked a little more than Medium Rare but not quite Medium. Unfortunately, most restaurant kitchens are too busy to handle this level of specificity.

steak temperatures

Trying to make guests happy who order their meat cooked outside of the standard spectrum can drive servers—and chefs—to madness. If we insist that guests adhere to the accepted scale, we increase the likelihood that they’ll send their food back. If they’re unhappy with the finished product, they’ll blame us for not making enough of an effort to understand their preferences. If we allow them to order fabricated steak temperatures that don’t exist, we must face the rage of an ornery chef who bristles at anything that strays outside of protocol. As with many hospitality conundrums, we’re always caught between a rock and a hard place. 

A restaurant kitchen isn’t an artist’s studio; it’s a factory. As a guest, you have a responsibility to understand that not every element of your dining experience is customizable. When you dine in a restaurant, you are enjoying plates or food that were engineered to be efficiently served simultaneously to a dining room full of hungry people. Expecting your initials monogrammed on every dish shows a lack of respect for the orderliness that is necessary for a cohesively functioning kitchen.

If waiters could somehow escort every guest who ordered “Medium Rare Plus” into the sweltering kitchen to explain to the grill cook how they like their steak, not a soul would ever ask for it that way again. The power that many guests feel when it comes to the peculiarities of cooking their food is in the luxury of not having to deal with the shame of facing the sweaty cook who’s making it. Good guests won’t abuse that power. 

Don’t Sabotage Your Restaurant Experience

The initial moments of your restaurant experience can set the tone for the entire meal and you should be mindful of your role in making those moments successful. There are some common pitfalls you can avoid that might injure your relationship with a restaurant staff. Having your server on your side from the beginning will pay dividends when you need something. Cultivating that relationship is a worthwhile investment and you should start earning capital the moment you sit down. Remember: Your server is an advocate for your needs. Spoiling that relationship at any point is not in your best interest. Here are some common mistakes people make that sour their rapport with servers:

Ignoring the Waiter’s Greeting – When your server says hello, he or she is also gauging the temperature of the table. Are you friendly and enthusiastic? Do you seem to want service to play a smaller or larger role in your dining experience? If you seem unfriendly or disinterested (even if it’s not intentional), you risk the server misreading your distraction as ambivalence. Stop whatever you’re doing (for god’s sake get off your damn cellphone) and take a moment to say hello. It will make a big difference in the server’s attitude toward you going forward. 

Rejecting Your Seating Assignment – It’s impossible for every guest to be happy with their table. Some tables are nearer to speakers, some are closer to the air conditioning vents. No table is perfect. Maitre’ds and hosts do their best to seat guests where they are most comfortable, but it can be a very complicated puzzle when parties arrive late or show up in larger or smaller groups. When you walk into a restaurant and immediately start picking furniture, the staff is watching and branding you a difficult guest before you’ve even said a word.

Declaring “We Haven’t Even Looked” at the Menu – You may not like being pestered to order quickly but busy restaurants have time constraints for each booking. Part of a restaurant’s business model is moving tables along as quickly as possible while preserving excellent service. If you put yourself in an adversarial role because you refuse to order in a timely fashion you are unnecessarily casting yourself as an enemy. It’s acceptable to want to slow down, but it’s better to politely ask for more time than to sound like you’re protesting against being rushed. 

Bad Restaurant Behavior

Soliciting the WiFi Password – Restaurants don’t owe you internet service. If they offer it, it’s usually advertised. But if it’s really so important to be connected, ask the server if the restaurant has WiFi after you’re ordered food and drinks not right away. Waitstaff, understandably, can get frustrated serving smartphone zombies all night. It’s a pain in the ass trying to get people’s attention who are constantly on their phones. If you immediately ask for WiFi when you sit down, you’ve become just another zombie. 

Asking Your Waiter’s Name – Guests wrongly think that asking the server his or her name is a way of restoring humanity to the servant/recipient relationship. Tactfully executed, sometimes it can. But when guests ask servers to introduce themselves it can often feel like they need the server to be a puppet. Waiters don’t like when guests invade their personal space and sometimes coming on too strong right off the bat with your need for an introduction is a turn-off. If you need to be on a first name basis, wait until you have a more established relationship with your server before you ask his or her name. 

Making Unnecessary Demands About Water – Of course, you are entitled to your water served however you like but being demanding about the first thing you ask for suggests you can be high maintenance. Asking for water with no ice, lemons on the side, hot water with lemon or bottled water at room temperature may be important to you but understand that doing so may alienate your server. Try to keep your water service simple or ask for modifications later after you’ve already ordered your meal. 

Requesting Bread Before You’ve Ordered – Restaurants will often withhold bread service until you’ve ordered for the obvious reason that you’ll probably order less if you’re filling up on bread. As input costs rise, many restaurants have done away with bread service altogether or charge for it.  If a restaurant sends complementary bread, it’s usually as a courtesy and should be treated as such. If you’re really that hungry, order.