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Aug. 19, 2022

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Order like a critic at restaurants with advice from Clark County food writer

Advice: Plan ahead, don’t ask for substitutions and be adventurous

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After writing about food for six years, I’ve developed a method for figuring out what to order at a restaurant. Like any system devised by a human being, it isn’t foolproof but is often effective. After years of pandemic-era takeout, actually dining in a restaurant is a special event met with anticipation. Different groups or occasions require special venues — a girls night out, romantic dinner or family celebration. To make sure things go smoothly, it’s good to plan ahead and carefully scan the menu when you arrive.

Pre-dining research

Researching a restaurant before heading out makes it more likely you’ll have a good dining experience. If you know what type of food you want, you can search the internet to get some business names. For instance, search “seafood restaurants near me,” or “cocktail bars near me.” Then search for the name of the restaurant and see what pops up. Reviews by professionals can be helpful.

Yelp is less reliable but nonetheless useful. People who review restaurants on Yelp either love a place like it’s the best thing that ever happened to dining or hate it and write paragraphs nitpicking and castigating the waitstaff and owner. Negative Yelpers seem to gather up all their disappointments in life and focus that rage on a business. For instance, a search for a local taco spot yielded both a five-star review and a one-star review. The complaint? Burrito juice leaked on the reviewer’s pants, shirt and car upholstery. I’m not sure what a lack of skill in burrito eating has to do with the quality of the food, but that’s how Yelp rolls.

The photos on Yelp are more reliable. They’re not slick pics taken by a professional photographer employed by the restaurant or photos by an Instagram influencer who may have been compensated for raving about the business. These are photos taken by regular customers and show the good, the bad and the unsightly. Wonky lighting can lead to some food photos with unappetizing odd colors, but if someone finds a roach in their food or a dirty bathroom, that’s telling. To get a sense of cleanliness of a restaurant, you can also check Clark County Public Health inspections online at clark.wa.gov/public-health/restaurant-inspection.

If anyone in your party has dietary restrictions or preferences, look at the menu online to see if there’s anything of substance for them to eat. I was a vegetarian for many years, and I tired of eating sad salads accompanied by a plate of french fries with my beer. If there’s nothing good on the menu, call the restaurant and see if it can make dishes that are satisfying and meet dietary restrictions or preferences. If there isn’t anything for the person to eat, try another place. Some restaurants use symbols on their menu to let diners know which dishes are vegan or gluten-free. This shows they’re interested in preparing food for special diets.

Even if you don’t have any dietary restrictions or preferences, read the menu online. A short menu is a good sign. Anyone who has ever worked at a place with a long menu knows that there are some rarely ordered items and the ingredients for these dishes are less than stellar. I worked at a deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., when I was a college student in the 1990s. The menu was extensive and included an avocado-and-turkey sandwich. Turkey was often ordered so it was fresh, but avocados weren’t popular in Ann Arbor at that time. When someone ordered this sandwich, I had to reach into the back of the refrigerator to find the lone avocado, a shrunken and wrinkled orb that looked like a tumor that fell off Yoda from the “Star Wars” movies.

A long menu makes me feel like I’m playing a food-ordering craps game in which I’m rolling the dice and hoping that it lands on something that has fresh ingredients and the chef enjoys preparing. Short menus signal to me that chefs are focusing on quality.

I also like to see information about where ingredients are sourced. Ignore vague phrases like “locally sourced,” “fresh ingredients” or “farm-to-table.” If a restaurant is sourcing locally, farm names will often appear on the menu. A menu that changes with the seasons also makes it likely that products come from local farms.

The fact is, most restaurants don’t source locally grown ingredients for a variety of reasons. Some source a few items but get everything else from a large supplier like Sysco. If sourcing is important to you, go to the handful of places like Elements and Rally Pizza that buy from small, local farms or talk to owners of other establishments and let them know this is a priority.

At the restaurant

Going out to eat and drink is an adventure. For an example of how not to dine out, see the film “When Harry Met Sally,” and watch Sally order food. She asks for substitutions and everything on the side. If you want to micromanage the chef or bartender, maybe you should just stay home. This rule doesn’t apply to someone who has dietary preferences or restrictions. Vancouver restaurants are getting better at offering vegan and gluten-free options, but it isn’t a vegan wonderland like Portland. A night out shouldn’t end with a trip to the emergency room.

For everyone else, keep in mind that a good chef creates dishes based on how all the ingredients fit together. If you start taking things out, you’re turning meals into a game of Jenga with missing pieces. You’ll end up with a jumble of incompatible items on your plate. This also applies to cocktails. One time I was out at a spot known for great cocktails made with premium spirits, freshly squeezed juices and carefully sourced bitters. My dining companions insisted on ordering vodka and sodas. What a waste.

Trust the professionals making your food and drink. Let them to show you what they can do. You may discover you love Brussels sprouts when they’re fried in duck fat and served with a black garlic aioli. Dining out is like traveling: It should be an adventure. You can’t control everything. Allowing things to happen often leads to the most exquisite discoveries and experiences. Sometimes there’s disappointment, but that’s life.

Try something you’ve never eaten. Talk to the server to get a sense of how this new food may taste. If it sounds interesting, go for it. You may find a new favorite. If there isn’t anything you haven’t ever tried on the menu, then order something you can’t make at home.

For many people, dining out means getting a big steak placed next to a fluffy starch. But a large piece of seared meat accompanied by a potato is the dullest thing on the menu. Ordering steak at a restaurant is a missed opportunity to try something interesting.

The exception to this rule is if you are at a steakhouse or some type of meat palace. Then you must order a big slab of meat. One of my favorite places is the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco. I’ll never forget what I overheard on a visit years ago to this red-velvet meat parlor. Over the din of the silver meat carts servers push around the room for tableside carving, I caught the words, “I’ll have the fish.” I nearly choked on an olive from my well-chilled dirty gin martini.


Rachel Pinsky: couveeats@gmail.com.

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