The Most Embarrassing Things To Order At A Restaurant

Theoretically, dining out at a restaurant is a straightforward proposition: You choose a dish, you eat the dish, you pay for the dish — end of transaction. 

But the reality is more complicated, determined as it is by myriad unspoken rules of engagement. Even the basics of etiquette we learned as children sometimes have to be unlearned. Take slurping: Do it at your grandma's table and you're in for a world of hurt. But in a Japanese noodle shop, it's taken as a compliment

And the same goes for ordering, when there are limits to the thoroughly American assumption that, per the old Burger King commercial, you can or should always "have it your way." Do you think the employee in the ad would still be singing cheerfully if the customer asked her to not only "hold the pickles, hold the lettuce" but also the flame-broiled patty and bun and bring him a Whopper composed of steak tartare in a taco shell instead?

As preposterous as that sounds, we guarantee most restaurant servers have heard worse. (Just ask the commenters on this hilarious Reddit thread.) And believe it or not, there are some unsuspecting menu items that can turn into an incredibly embarrassing moment once it's your turn to place your order. Here are a few requests that any upstanding, self-respecting patron should avoid forevermore.

Well-done steak

When you insist on cremating that prized filet mignon or dry-aged strip, you're basically killing the cow twice. You're also killing the chef, who has mastered the technique of cooking steak no further than medium-rare to preserve "the best and truest flavor of the beef," per Porter House Bar and Grill's Michael Lomonaco. By ordering a smoking heap of gristle instead, you're for all intents and purposes forcing a trained professional to suck at his or her job. And let's not forget the rancher who diligently raised that soon-to-be lump of coal for maximum tenderness. How many insults can you add to injury?

Ironically, the person you may be hurting most is yourself: As this Munchies article explains, charred meat is high in compounds that have been linked to the development of both cancer and dementia. You could try slathering it in ketchup on the slim chance that lycopene's antioxidant properties will offset some of the damage. But the likelier outcome of that move is that the chef, now mortally wounded, will damage you first. Talk about a missteak.

Ranch dressing (and other condiments)

Actually, ketchup's got many enemies — squirt it on hot dogs, eggs, or pasta in the wrong place at your own risk. But it isn't the only condiment that grinds the gears of gastronomes, who'd rank putting mayonnaise on pastrami, haphazardly plunking sushi into soy sauce, or dousing most anything in white-truffle oil among the most heinous culinary crimes since this guy boiled his wife

And then there's ranch dressing, which this Chicago Tribune op-ed savages with glutton-shaming glee. While giving reluctant salad eaters an equally reluctant pass for drowning vegetables in it, author Ben Adler has a sarcastic question for "anyone [who] would use it on french fries"... "Because deep-fried food isn't greasy and caloric enough?" And don't get him started on pizza — as it's already covered in cheese, he fumes, adding more dairy-based product is "completely redundant, wildly unhealthy, and disrespectful to any halfway decent" pie. 

He's far from alone in that assessment. Take this 2014 Eater story about a pizzaiolo in Dallas who dared to charge $1,000 per side of ranch — and then had to put the kibosh on guests attempting to smuggle in buttermilk contraband. Though it was all supposedly in good fun, the moral of the story is worthy of Shakespeare: "To gild refined gold, to paint the wasteful and ridiculous excess." The excessive gilder in the Bard's case is King John — who gets poisoned at the end of the play. Just saying. 

Major substitutions

By now, you may be echoing Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally: "I just want it the way I want it." Great, go home and make it that way — your place, your rules. But the moment you set foot inside a restaurant, you're implicitly assenting to the kitchen's rules. When you break that social contract and demand substitutions to the point of "basically designing your own dish," says one exasperated chef, you not only demean "someone who has worked really hard to create balanced, varied dishes" but also potentially disrupt the flow of service for everyone.

We know what you're thinking now too: Paying customers are always right — your money, your rules. (Boy, you want your way everywhere, don't you?) But when the service you're paying for is creativity, the dynamic shifts. Would you insist that a museum curator rearrange the sculpture garden because you paid an entrance fee? Or command an orchestra to play Beethoven's Ninth in a different key because you bought symphony tickets?  

Granted, that analogy doesn't always apply. Allergy sufferers are exempt, and so, generally speaking, are patrons of more casual, less chef-driven restaurants, where no one's going to say boo if you hold the tomato on a club sandwich. But even then, you can wear out your welcome by taking too many liberties — not only with the staff but with your own companions. As a friend of ours recently said, "I refuse to eat with anyone that cannot order in under 10 syllables."

A side salad for the main course

Do you think you're better than us or something? Okay, if you're sticking with a small green salad while the rest of us chow down on burgers and fries, you probably are. But if you so much as roll your eyes when we ask to see the dessert menu, you can kiss your invitation to the next group outing goodbye. To paraphrase this dieting expert for Thrillist, misery may love company, but the feeling isn't mutual.

Don't get us wrong — a well-made entrée salad, combining a robust array of flavors and textures, is totally legit. A side salad on the actual side: also legit. But when you order it in lieu of a main course, you're not only violating the convivial spirit of dining out, which is dependent on everyone's enjoyment, but also begging to be pegged as conforming to the worst of gender stereotypes (presuming you're female — which is, statistically speaking, a reasonable presumption). Oh, and you're also bumming out the server whose tip you just clipped. 

Is it fair that women, as society's people pleasers, can't win for losing (weight or otherwise)? Of course not. We're damned to feel guilty about annoying everyone around us if we order the salad and damned to feel guilty about our bodies if we don't. But until we overthrow the patriarchy, we can at least compromise with a reasonably healthy entrée.

College-kid cocktails

Like every movement, the craft-cocktail revolution was bound to mellow with age. From mai tais to amaretto sours, many drinks its early proponents shunned as though they contained equal parts bum wine and leprosy are making a comeback; turns out that, when properly made with quality ingredients, they're delicious. (Heck, some freewheeling mixologists are even rehabbing the reputation of frozen margaritas and piña coladas.)   

But there's simply no saving some concoctions. If you can gulp radioactive vodka and Red Bull or Long Island Iced Teas like water, suck down sticky-sweet Mudslides as though they weren't 820 calories a pop, or even just say the words Sex on the Beach without cringing, then you have a drinking problem that can't be solved by a 12-step program. It's called bad taste. And any bartender worth his or her margarita salt will silently (or not so silently) judge you for it.

Hot tea

Shocked? Rest assured we were too. Why should anyone be embarrassed to ask a restaurant server for something as innocuous, even virtuous, as a cup of water with some leaves in it?  

Obviously, if the restaurant in question is an actual tea house — be it a dim sum palace or an English parlor — you shouldn't be. But in your average American establishment, an old industry pro told us, what you're actually (if indavertently) demanding is "$14 worth of labor for a $2 drink." This Bitchy Waiter rant confirms it: Involving everything from flavor selection and water heating to lemon cutting and cream pouring, what looks like perfectly civilized service to you amounts to "a pain in the a**" for staff.    

Granted, if recent studies showing an increase in American tea consumption hold any water (no pun intended), even the bitchiest waiter may eventually have to bite his tongue and go with the flow. But until that watershed moment, consider settling for iced tea or coffee — or at least tipping a little extra.  

The token alternative in a specialty restaurant

If there's an overarching theme to the previous entries, it's that context matters — there's a right and a wrong time and place for everything. Let's use a classic New England clam shack as an example. You're sitting at a picnic table right on the harbor, the sun is shining, you can smell the sea breeze. You look at the menu: fried clams, clam cakes, steamers, and chowder, as well as five or six other types of shellfish, plus all the fixings — and a grilled chicken breast. Are you really going to order the chicken? If so, you'd better be a) allergic to shellfish b) literally starving and c) unable for some unforeseen reason to eat anywhere else. Otherwise you're defeating the entire purpose of the experience. Just go wait in the car while everyone else enjoys themselves without you.

If that sounds harsh, it's for your own good: A broadened palate is a broadened mind. You love beef and broccoli? By all means get it at your favorite take-out joint. But to walk into, say, a traditional Sichuan restaurant and choose it over the specialties of the chefs' home region is to do them and yourself a disservice. The same goes for a Philadelphia roll at a traditional sushi bar or spaghetti and meatballs at a traditional Italian restaurant (as opposed to a good old American red-sauce parlor). There's a reason the adage "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" still resonates.   

A fork

Now that that's settled, is it a faux pas to call for cutlery in the aforementioned Sichuan restaurant if the tables are set only with chopsticks? Not necessarily. Sure, some servers might sneer a little at the request, for reasons this Washington Post column explains. And on the same grounds that it would behoove you to leave your comfort zone when ordering, you'd do well to at least give chopsticks a shot (here's how). But if you just can't swing it, better you should suffer the slight embarrassment of asking for Western utensils than the bigger embarrassment of making a huge mess. (As one friend of mine sheepishly described her disinclination to use chopsticks, "I know I'm supposed to, but I just want more food in my mouth than they allow.")

Ironically, if most Asian restaurateurs will forgive Americans for using a fork on food that back in China or Japan would be eaten with chopsticks, some Italian-American restaurateurs will crucify you for using a fork on food that, back in Italy, is actually served with a fork. Yes, we're talking about pizza. As NPR reporter Sylvia Poggioli told the The Salt, Italians who cut into their pizzas at the table before picking up the pieces with their hands can only "scratch their heads" when New Yorkers erupt in fury at the sight of silverware anywhere near a slice.

In other words, forget about Rome — when in the Big Apple, do as the fold-holders do.

Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity

What's so wrong with ordering a stack of pancakes smothered in your choice of fruit compote — glazed strawberries, peaches, and so on — beneath a dollop of whipped topping? Nothing at all. Unless, that is, you're at IHOP.

There, your otherwise totally normal breakfast goes by the flat-out ridiculous name of Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity. It's an outrage that has been allowed to stand since 1984, when some bad (rotten, really) apples in IHOP's marketing department apparently made the decision to humiliate the chain's own patrons by forcing them to utter (or mutter) a string of words that should never come out of the mouths of anyone under 5.

How do we know that these branding geniuses were evil rather than well-meaning subscribers to the theory that, as this former advertising art director writing for Smithsonian suggests, "anything that people remember is good for business?" Because they produced a TV commercial in which their customers stoop to wearing Groucho Marx disguises just so they can have their Rooty Tooties and maintain their reputations too. That's right: By the company's own reckoning, it's more dignified to don a beaglepuss in public than to call a dish by the name they themselves gave it. Top that, Guy Fieri.

Almost anything at any Guy Fieri restaurant

Oh, wait, what we were thinking? Of course the self-styled Mayor of Flavortown can top that. With donkey sauce, natch. Here's a dude who appears on television, by choice, looking and sounding like he just emerged from a coma he fell into at age 14. Obviously it wouldn't occur to the poster child for arrested development that fully grown adults would find anything asinine about having to ask for Trash Can Nachos, a Tatted-Up Turkey Burger, or a Guido's Freaky Tiki out loud.

Granted, if you've chosen to visit one of his establishments, it probably hasn't occurred to you either. In that case, you probably also don't care that, in his infamous 2012 takedown of Fieri's now-closed Times Square outpost, The New York Times' Pete Wells found almost nothing on the menu that could be consumed "without fear or regret." What might give you pause, however, is the parody of said menu that went viral a few months later, boasting such dishes as the Panamania! — mainly "deep-fried snake with a printed-out picture of David Lee Roth stapled on it" — and the Hobo Lobo Bordello Slam Jam, which includes "38 ounces of super-saddened, Cheez-gutted wolf meat...sprayed with Axe." Admitting it's funny because it's (practically) true is the first step toward redemption — and away from the front door of any Guy Fieri restaurant.