The 6 valid reasons to ask for a menu substitution
August 27th, 2013
12:00 PM ET
Share this on: editor James Oliver Cury tackles controversial food-and-drink-themed etiquette issues.

To much of the restaurant-going world, chefs seem to have exchanged “the customer is always right” with another saying: “No substitutions.” Seeing those two words at the bottom of a menu can sour the mood, if not your palate, before you’ve even taken the first bite. It’s a needlessly pre-emptive, passive-aggressive kind of note. Imagine if a hotel contract stated: “Don’t even think about asking us if you can stay in your room past noon.” It’s one thing to have a policy and quite another to deny a request before it’s even been made.

And yet, the increasingly ubiquitous no-substitutions policy is a reaction to customer demands run amok. But rather than choose a side, I think there’s a middle ground - a set of rules that, if followed by both restaurant owners and patrons alike, could benefit everyone. First, let’s take a close look at where each side is coming from.

On the restaurant side:

Many chefs already strive to meet customer substitution demands; the “soup or salad” options and the mix-and-match style of “choose one side dish with your entree” provide some choices (and technically the menu itself is a list of options, of course). More important, many dishes require advance preparation that just can’t be easily undone (it’s hard to take the egg out of the Hollandaise sauce though not so tough to remove the bacon from the BLT.)

At the extreme are chefs who view their dishes as uncompromisable edible artworks, seeking to create a composition that perfectly balances the colors, textures, and flavors on a plate - regardless of what’s best for the customer. You want the balsamic-glazed roasted beets instead of the locally foraged ramps? But...that would be red instead of green!

On the dining public's side:

Customers must realize that they don’t have to eat at restaurants that don’t serve food the way they like it. Not all restaurants are greasy-spoon diners where you get to explain to the server exactly how to cook and prepare the eggs. “Have it your way” is a Burger King slogan, not a universal service industry mantra. And, no, you really shouldn’t expect to be able to take the side from one entrée and move it to another entrée like some sort of mix-and-match exercise.

That said, there are medical and religious concerns that merit more than a snide “we don’t care about your silly whims” from eating establishments. They are:

1. I’m allergic to...
2. I’m lactose intolerant.
3. I’m gluten-free.
4. I’m vegetarian/vegan.
5. I eat kosher/halal, etc.
6. I can’t have alcohol.

Almost every other substitution demand I can think of is arbitrary, impulsive or childishly picky - not that this should stop anyone from making these kinds of requests anyway. It can’t hurt to ask for the sweet potato fries instead of mashed potatoes.

A rational compromise - a solution that would end the debate - it seems to me, would be to have a menu that has at least one dish that meets the needs of all of the potential diners above. I am not suggesting that every dish ought to be so malleable as to please all the people all the time, but if I take my vegetarian wife out for brunch, it’s ridiculous if every dish has meat in it (unless, perhaps, I’m dining at the chef’s table at my local butcher).

As a final note, you should not have to pay extra for your substitution unless the waiter tells you in advance and you have agreed to the fee. It’s usually not the money that’s so irksome; it’s the principle - as one writer noted when he discovered an extra $1.50 tacked on to the bill for, yes, the replacement of sweet potato fries with mashed potatoes. Was that really necessary?

Have I sided too much with the chef or the customer? If the hate mail is balanced by viewpoints from both sides I’ll know I got it right.

More from Details:
5 Good Reasons to Skip Breakfast 
The Next Superfood Is Here and It's Called Moringa
The Ultimate Guide to Gourmet Ice Cream

Eat This List: 5 ways to complain effectively in a restaurant
The psychology of food aversions
A five-step plan for overcoming picky eating (a.k.a. an open letter to Anderson Cooper)

soundoff (177 Responses)
  1. What?

    I saw "On the restaurant side" but I never saw anything for the diner's side. I understand that some people come up with the most unreasonable requests, and I do sympathize with the chef on that.

    That's as far as it goes, however. Why do people make special requests? Because we are paying a lot for our food and we'd like to enjoy it. If I want salad dressing on the side, it's because I know there's a good chance that my salad will be absolutely drenched in dressing, or it will have sat a few minutes, thus saturating some of the salad to the point of being inedible, or I may not actually like their version of the dressing. If I ask for something without cheese or some other element of the dish, it's because I don't like that element and I will then not like the dish.

    I don't mind being told that a certain substitution is too complicated to take out of a dish – for instance, taking the carrots out of a pot-pie or the onions out of a french onion soup, but I would definitely resent someone denying my request to just not put an element into a dish where it wasn't vital.

    October 30, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  2. Goopie

    As a picky eater myself, who is also sensitive to certain foods, I completely understand a restaurant that doesn't want to change its dishes. I enjoy eating where I feel the chef has actually thought about everything that's on my plate and didn't just throw a random side dish to fill it up. In fact, I also like cooking and do think of it as a kind of art, and have found MYSELF making a dish I couldn't eat because it was the right combination for the meal. Because of that, before I go to a restaurant I try to read the menu at home so I know if I can find myself something to eat there.
    However, sometimes I have no control over where I'm going to eat (going out with my family or when someone invites me, etc.), and I find myself where I can't eat anything without some changes. In those cases I would first try to pick an entree that doesn't have the "problematic" ingredient mixed up with the rest so I can just eat everything else and leave it. When this isn't possible (and this situation is quite rare), I try not to substitute but to eliminate – I would ask if I can just not have anything on the side, for an example (again, I would usually try to go for an entree where it's easily possible – let's say some meat dish with something on the side). If it's not possible I would ask if I could get it but on the side, or another way that would allow me to eat something and leave the rest (in these cases would even agree to just eat the top half or things like that although it may mean I don't eat that much). I think this is a reasonable compromise, and yet I still find myself in places where they won't agree to make the slightest change – not in the entree but in the PLATING, because that's how the chef wants it and that's it. I think that's where a restaurant should be just a bit more flexible. A couple of times I found myself having just diet coke while everyone around me are eating a two course meal, because the kitchen wouldn't put the eggplants on the side of the dish or anywhere but on the part of the dish I could eat, or something like that. If I went in there by myself I might have understood this approach but when I'm with a group of people and clearly can't just go anywhere else I think the chef can agree to just arrange the food differently on the plate. Obviously if for some reason it's not possible I'd understand but when it's just the policy I don't think it's fair.

    October 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  3. AnonUser

    Once, while I was pregnant, my husband and I went out for dinner. The tasting menu looked fantastic, and thankfully the chef was willing to substitute any raw meat/fish or unpasteurized items for me. Yes, I could have ordered something else, but the extra effort on the part of the kitchen has made us recommend the restaurant to any of our friends, and made us repeat guests! I understand if the chef has a vision, but being slightly flexible created repeat business. Isn't that what keeps restaurants open?

    October 16, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  4. Mike M

    I have an allergy to citric acid, so I don't eat spaghetti or pizza, ketchup, lemonade and other things that contain it. If there is something that I really want that might have citric acid, I'll ask. And if it does, I volunteer to take some Benadryl beforehand to control the reaction – if I take it in advance, I don't have a problem (and no, Benadryl does not make me sleepy – sometimes I wish it did).

    October 15, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
  5. commercial drive

    i once had someone come into my cafe and ask for a blueberry muffin that had no gluten, sugar or egg. really? want a bowl of blueberries then, and we'll call it a muffin?

    i used to think i was the crazy annoying one when it came to food issues when ordering, but WOW after running a cafe for a year, i had no idea people could be so insane when it came to substitutions.

    September 20, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  6. PosterGirl

    Again, won't someone think of the diabetics? There are a lot of us out there; one of the things I hate the most is ordering a burger/steak/salad and not being allowed to skip the fries/potatoes/croutons. As an earlier reader pointed out, what you eat can kill you, and I'd really rather not freak out other patrons by shooting up at the table. (No, I *can't* do it in the bathroom. That's even less sanitary.)

    September 16, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
    • d

      Really, someone wanted you to give yourself an insulin shot in the bathroom. Such compassion.

      October 17, 2013 at 12:39 am |
    • Cionna

      I've given myself insulin shots in restaurant bathrooms plenty of times, it's not that difficult.

      October 23, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
1 2
| Part of