One of the advantages of being on the road is trading in home cooking for restaurant eating. However, it is easier than you think to make some elementary ordering mistakes, transforming a perfect meal into something much more mediocre.
Don’t worry, though.
Knowing these 7 mistakes and how to avoid them can get you back on track to a fun food-fueled trip:
1) Thinking Specials are Special
Specials aren’t always special. Photo by gareth1953 Friends please…
It’s nice to think that specials appear on a board because a restaurant decides it’s a good day for clam chowder. The reality is that specials are a common way of using up ingredients that are on their last legs, and there is no better way to do this than turning them into an exotic casserole.
That doesn’t mean specials equal food poisoning; in many cases the food will be fine. The question is, do you want to hand over your cash for products not in their prime?
Unless there is a cost advantage and you trust the restaurant or the dish (vegetables are safer), you’re better sticking to the main menu.
2) Choosing the Second Cheapest Wine
Don’t settle for second best. Photo by John-Morgan.
Many people think that table wine screams cheap, and for the wine uninitiated, a common default is ordering the second-most expensive option on the list. The problem is that restaurants are on to you and have already set their prices accordingly.
The first way around this is getting over your fear of table wine, especially if you are drinking in a region known for its grape. I’ve never had a bad bottle in Mendoza, Argentina, or Chianti, Italy.
If your wallet can stretch, ask the waiter for advice, set a budget, and take a photo of the bottle for the next time that you’re out.
3) Doing Steak to Death
Don’t cook your steak to death. Photo by arnold | inuyaki.
I made this faux pas in Paris, and after 30 minutes of chewing, I learned the tough way that there is a culinary reason steak should not be ordered well-done.
A good steak is succulent in flavor and texture, both of which come from the meat’s juices, and when steak is cooked rare or medium rare, these juices are perfectly sealed in.
For every minute longer that steak is cooked, the juices evaporate taking their taste with them until you are left with a piece of cow that is more befitting a leather handbag than something edible.
It may take some getting used to ordering your meat pink, but give it a try, if only for the sake of your jawbone.
4) Killing a Dish with Fussiness
I’ll have the caesar salad without…everything. Photo by Kanko*.
We all have foods that we don’t like, but fussy ordering, or cooking from your table, is the restaurant equivalent of backseat driving.
Most of a dish’s ingredients have been carefully selected to give the right balance of flavors, and the second you start meddling with that, you run the risk of getting neither what you expected nor what the chef has designed.
Crossing the threshold of a restaurant means putting faith in the chef, and unless there is something you really don’t like, have some trust in the process.
5) Ignoring the Local Dishes
Take a leaf out of the locals’ recipe book. Photo by HerryLawford.
The best place to order spaghetti bolognaise is in Italy, likewise with green curry and Thailand, quesadillas and Mexico, thali and India and the list goes on. The point is the world is a huge tasting plate of cuisines, and one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not trying something new.
Local recipes are passed down for generations and are based on ingredients native to the area. The converse is true of international dishes featured on a menu to feed the tourist hordes.
Don’t be daunted. Eating local doesn’t have to equal eyeballs. Research some local dishes that appeal to you and make it a part of your trip to try them.
6) Offending the Waiter
Be kind to your waiter. Photo by Adikos.
The unfortunate thing about hunger is it can come with a side order of irritability and the waiter is usually the one who gets it in the neck.
From super-relaxed service to things going wrong, it is important to keep your cool. Most waiters won’t retaliate against offensive customers, but don’t give your country a bad rap with rudeness.
Hunger pangs can be kept at bay by ordering a basket of bread as soon as you sit down.
If you feel the urge to complain, have a quick reality check. Many countries don’t offer the same exacting standards as back home. Things will be slower in Latin America and food will be cooler in Greece, that’s how it is.
For a better experience, set your expectations before you dine abroad.
7) Letting Fears or Fearlessness Rule
Fearless eating in moderation. Photo by mckaysavage.
Don’t let habit help you order. If you’re used to ordering the same, safe dish the whole world over, check out the advice above for ordering local dishes. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who feel compelled to order the most outlandish thing on the menu to the exclusion of the many mainstream local dishes on offer.
Deep fried bugs may make for an awesome tale back home, but a spicy Sichuan hotpot can hold as many high notes. Reserve extreme eating for snack time to get a broader local flavor.
Remember to pack these tips on your next trips for mediocre-free meals.
What tips do you have for dining abroad? Let me know in the comments below.
If you liked this article, you might also like: 101 Foodie Hacks: A Cheat Sheet for Finding the Best Meals Abroad.
Main photo: Leave ordering mistakes and mediocre meals behind you by Dominic’s pics.