4 Things to Avoid at Restaurants
By David Bakke, Guest Columnist
Editor's note: Our regular Kip Tips columnist Cameron Huddleston, is taking a deserved vacation but has solicited the help of her favorite personal-finance bloggers to guide Kip Tip readers in her absence.
When dining out, I love to enjoy great food. After all, that's why I'm there in the first place. But if you’re going to be spending your hard-earned cash on a restaurant meal, there are some things you want to stay away from when you go out to eat so you’re not just throwing away money.
This advice comes from someone who has spent the better part of his professional career managing the kitchens of various restaurants. Although most places are committed to the highest food service standards, there are a few common traps to avoid.
So without further ado, here is my list of four things to skip when ordering at a restaurant.
1. Fish on a Monday. Have you ever heard this phrase? I sure have. The reason behind it is that even if a restaurant claims their fish is "fresh daily" or "flown in fresh," most fish markets and purveyors do not deliver on Sundays. Therefore, the majority of the time, the fish you order on Monday was actually delivered to the restaurant on Friday or Saturday. Although fish going on three-days-old probably won't get you sick (i.e. food poisoning at a restaurant), why take the chance? It isn't exactly "fresh" as advertised either.
2. Featured items. This word is a definite red flag to me. When I worked in the restaurant business, we featured food we were trying to get rid of. In many cases, the food had not sold well or was about to expire, so we drew extra attention to it or advertised it at a lower price. The bottom line was that we wanted to sell what we could while it was still acceptable for human consumption.
In most corporate kitchens, recipes are produced in batches and used over time. If a restaurant has chicken and cheese nachos on their menu, it's a safe bet that the cook mixes the chicken and cheese sauce in advance and marks it with an expiration date. Leftover and expired portions have to be discarded, and it goes without saying that throwing out food can put a serious dent in a restaurant's profitability. Add in the fact that restaurant managers are under great pressure to produce a profit, and voila!, you have a featured item.
If my chicken and cheese sauce imagery didn't do the trick, I'll say it again: Stay away from the featured items. If you wanted leftovers, you would have stayed at home.
3. Steak at a seafood restaurant. To me, this point is obvious, but I still see it all the time. If you're eating at a seafood restaurant, the kitchen specialty is not a secret: It's not steak. So if you can avoid it, don't order it. There are a couple of reasons for this:
-- Your seafood joint du jour is probably not very good at preparing steak. If you're going to pay for it, you should be enjoying the best possible form of its juicy goodness. In other words, make the smart choice and go to a steakhouse, or change your order.
-- The steak is likely on the menu as an option for someone who doesn't like seafood. Because most patrons enjoy seafood, the restaurant probably doesn't sell a lot of steak. This brings the freshness issue into question again.
This tip goes for anything that is outside a restaurant's specialty. If a vegetarian restaurant has a chicken option, avoid that too. Always stick with the specialty.
4. House wine and wine by the glass. Be mindful when ordering wine. House wine usually comes in large, over-sized bottles that take longer to finish. In my experience, a restaurant doesn't have to toss an opened bottle after a certain length of time. As a result, the bottle may be open for several days, or even weeks, if the wine is not ordered frequently.
While this may not be an issue at popular or large restaurants, it is something to consider at a small restaurant or one you're unfamiliar with. If you want to order wine by the glass, I recommend ordering the best-selling and most popular wine on the menu. That way, you can ensure the bottle was opened recently.
Also, consider the cost effectiveness of your choice when ordering wine by the glass. As a matter of taste, house wine is usually a cheaper, less flavorful wine. If you are an aspiring connoisseur or dining with friends, you may want to order a whole bottle of something slightly better. Not only will you see it uncorked in front of you, but the bottle may be less expensive than several glasses ordered individually.
There are a lot of ways to save money when eating out, including utilizing restaurant coupons and discounts. But when I dine at a restaurant, cost is not necessarily the only thing on my mind - quality is also an essential consideration. When I spend my hard-earned money on a special meal, I want to know that it's fresh and well-prepared.
Use these tips to avoid common tricks (and traps) of the restaurant trade when you're dining out. You don't need to distrust your favorite neighborhood restaurants or other hot spots, but instead, develop a stronger relationship with them by asking questions about the menu. The good ones will give it to you straight, so you can make your own choices.
Choose the dining establishments that reward your patronage with excellent (and honest) service, food, and drinks.
David Bakke is a former restaurant manager who now works in the financial industry. He writes for the Money Crashers personal finance blog, where he shares his tips on issues like money management, saving for retirement, investing, and smart shopping.