How to Navigate Special Orders and Food Problems in Restaurants

When you talk about the restaurant industry, you’re invariably going to hear about special orders and how servers hate them more than Hitler, how they make cooks want to start lobbing bones at restaurant patrons, how they are the AntChrist. The truth, though, isn’t quite so cut-and-dried.

The thing is, special orders have their own set of rules. It’s not just “don’t ever make special orders,” because, come on, of course it isn’t. That’s patently unreasonable, and my abject hatred of tomatoes means I’m sure as hell going to ask for stuff without them if I can. Problems with an order, too, have their own issues — and misconceptions about what is/isn’t OK are just as frequently held by people trying to be nice to their own detriment as by complete raging assholes. With that in mind, I’d like to clear up some of the common issues you see with special orders and food problems.

One special thing to note before we begin: exceptions exist to everything, and in the case of the items on this list, having an allergy applies to nearly every entry. If your objection to one of these items is “but what about an allergy,” just assume that having an allergy excuses you, and find something else to complain about, please. It shouldn’t be difficult; you guys are so good at that.

Q. Is it OK to ask for a special order?

A. Generally, of course it is. A kitchen that can’t remove an item from a dish that isn’t pre-made, or add an item to a dish (usually for an upcharge — more on this shortly) isn’t a very good kitchen. Simple special orders are easy.
As with anything else, there’s a line, though. Removing 1-2 items from a dish is generally fine. A single substitution is (usually) also fine.

But if you’re trying to invent your own menu item by subtracting multiple items, substituting others, and adding some more, you are the worst (again, allergy exception). Just…don’t. Don’t ever do that. That is awful and you are awful and you should feel awful. Order off the menu or go somewhere else. Aside from shitty tippers, customers inventing their own menu items is the single thing servers most hate to deal with.

Q. Speaking of which, what about that upcharge? Should I complain about it?

A. Hell no. Menu items are priced according to cost. You don’t get to add a salmon filet to a salad and then not pay for it because you “substituted” it for the onions. Based on the fact that you were able to put on your own pants that morning (presumably), you know damn well that fish costs more than onions, so stop being an entitled little shit and pay the added cost.

Granted, your server needs to tell you there’s going to be an upcharge. That’s part of the deal. But you should expect one, and if you try to argue about it, you’re a toolbag.

Q. I used to get an item at a restaurant that they no longer have, and I’d really like it. What do I do if I want that item?

A. You ask. There’s no hard-and-fast rule on whether it’s going to be possible to get the thing you like, because in a lot of cases, they might have taken it off the menu because it wasn’t selling and they didn’t want to keep buying the ingredients necessary to make the dish. If your server is telling you they can’t do that item any more, they can’t do that item any more. Figure out something else you want, or, failing that, feel free to take your business elsewhere.

That being said, if you’re a valued regular and a good customer (and I’ve never met a server that didn’t remember both truly great and truly terrible customers), a lot of the time a business will bend over backwards to try to accommodate you. If you have a history of being a great customer, a lot of places will go out of their way to try to recreate that thing you liked to the best of their ability even if they lack the specific ingredients. By contrast
, if you’re a recurring douchebag hated by every employee of the restaurant, they’re not required to go out of their way to make something that isn’t on their menu and they will take a perverse (and wholly justified) joy in telling you “no.”

“But how do I know which one I am?” you might ask. Do you regularly tip 20% and treat restaurant employees with basic politeness, or do you leave 10% and treat your server like you’re a Gulag commandant? When you come in, do people seem happy to see you, or do they look like they’re trying not to react to the fact that someone just unleashed a soul-destroying fart?

Let’s be honest, if you’re even asking the question “how do I know which one I am?” you’re almost certainly one of the good ones. Shitheads generally lack the self-awareness to even consider that question.

Q. My food wasn’t prepared the way I asked for it. Is it OK to send it back?

A. YES. A thousand times, yes. This is one of the most common questions that gets asked by well-meaning people, and I can’t make this any clearer: if you ordered a food a certain way, and the food did not come that way (e.g. you ordered a steak medium rare and it came out brown), not only are you within your rights to send it back, but you really should send it back. Any decent server will take care of something like that for you without hesitation, and in every kitchen I’ve worked with, re-cooks immediately move to the front of the queue. In the case of steak, it’s also very easy to see when things are improperly prepared.

The one caveat: if you order something like a burger without onions, and there’s a raw red onion swirl sitting on the bun next to the burger, if you try to send the whole thing back as a result, they’re just going to take it off the plate, maybe move things around, and give it back to you. They’ll also be right to do so, because what are you, six years old? Come on.

Q. What about if my food comes out cold?

A. Was it supposed to come out cold? I’ve had people lose their shit about the chicken on a salad being cold, when frequently that’s the way it’s served (personally, I think hot meat on a salad tastes disconcertingly weird when everything else is cold, but that’s me). Likewise, lightly-seared ahi tuna isn’t going to be hot all the way through, for obvious reasons. You CAN send it back at that point, but you look pretty dumb in so doing.

If it’s something like a burger, though? Send that shit back and don’t feel guilty about it. Food that’s supposed to be hot shouldn’t be coming out cold.

Q. What about my coffee not being hot enough?

A. OK, I get it if the coffee actually comes out COLD or lukewarm. Sure. But there are a staggering number of people who want coffee so freaking hot that it’s literally impossible to drink without scalding your mouth. What the fuck is wrong with you people? You can’t possibly enjoy that beverage, because you can’t drink it without physically punishing yourself.

The other thing to note here is that there’s a point past which servers CAN’T warm coffee up. Most decent restaurants don’t even have a microwave (side note: it’s telling that the people who always want their coffee hot enough to melt iron are usually the same people who assume every restaurant has a microwave), and if they don’t, your server’s main option is probably going to be using the cappuccino machine’s steam nozzle to increase the heat. There’s only so much that does, though, and even that’s not good enough for a lot of complete raving loons customers.

Ultimately, if you want a liquid so hot it’s a wonder it doesn’t melt the container it’s sitting in, just go home and make it yourself.

Q. What if the food comes out prepared properly, but isn’t what I thought it was in my head?

A. This is a little more complicated, and there’s no hard-and-fast rule. A lot of this comes down to how busy the restaurant is; if it’s a slow night, it’s generally fine, but if the place is packed, well…you have a right to send it back (I mean, you have a right to send it back for ANY reason, including that you suddenly realized Mercury is in retrograde), but depending on why, your server/chefs might hate you for it. “I didn’t like it” is actually usually a perfectly fine reason. “It didn’t have enough shrimp, give me more of them without an upcharge” makes you a raging douchesocket.

The obvious exception to this, again, is allergies: if you’re allergic to something, and you didn’t realize it was in your dish (or the menu didn’t list it, which happens), it doesn’t matter how busy it is — you need to send it back immediately.

Q. Speaking of which, I have an allergy, but I feel guilty for telling my server about it. Should I tell them I’m allergic?

A. FOR FUCK’S SAKE, YES, YOU SHOULD. Full stop. No if’s, and’s, or but’s.

You’d be amazed how much I hear this from friends. I appreciate that people are frequently so nice as to not want to seem picky, but that’s an instance where you should really be more assertive. I touched on this before we even got going, but the point with allergies needs to be re-stated here. Allergies are a big deal, and no server wants to see their customers have some sort of allergic reaction at the table (well, unless they’re cole slaw guy). Same with chefs; even if chefs have the reputation of being as balanced as a gyroscope in an earthquake, good chefs rarely get angry about having to work around allergies.

Please, please tell your servers if you’re allergic to something. Really, it’s OK, even if it’s a difficult order. I always took pride in being able to work around difficult allergies, because I know how much having to eat around them sucks.

Q. But what if servers don’t care/get annoyed when I tell them I have allergies?

A. OK, two things here: a) it’s entirely possible you’re expecting that response and misreading their reaction, and b) any server who doesn’t take allergy issues seriously should not be doing that job. Worst-case scenario, take your business somewhere else. You are absolutely and unequivocally in the right when it comes to dealing with your medical needs, and anyone who would insist otherwise is not good at what they do.*

I will say this, though: four years of waiting tables and I never heard of another server treating an allergy with anything but the utmost caution. None of us ever wanted to lose our jobs or put someone in the hospital, and the next time I see Epi Pen en papillote on a menu will be a first.

Hopefully that clears some stuff up for you. If you have any additional questions specifically pertaining to special orders or food problems, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them.

* I had a former co-worker, a line cook, who stubbornly insisted that there were “only like six things” people could actually be allergic to. He claimed he had learned this in culinary school. Then again, he was a Ravens fan, so he clearly wasn’t very smart to begin with. OHHHHH, BALTIMORE BURN.

Image via Candy Box Images/Shutterstock.

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