Pet Peeve

If you were dining with me at a restaurant and asked me what I thought about my meal, my response might be like this:

“Well the bulk of the salad which is grains and tomatoes is ice cold, which I don’t like, and the grilled chicken is overcooked and dry. The avocados are brown and I can’t even find the feta cheese. The balsamic vinaigrette is completely overpowering, and the salad should be served at room temperature.”

(These words were actually spoken by me when my husband and I were having lunch out of town.)

And then I would see your eyes roll back into your head because you would think I was a negative Nancy and overcritical of restaurant food.

I am neither of these things, but I take dining out seriously. Where I live, I don’t go out for great food, although there is some to be had, I usually just want a break from my kitchen, and often meet up with friends.

I am critical, because I think all restaurants should have consistent, quality standards. I wish I could always give high praise, honestly. I mean, who wants badly cooked food and terrible service?

Sometimes my husband complains as much as I do, because even though he doesn’t cook, he does know properly-cooked seasonal food. So, here is his comment at dinner on that same day when we were out of town:

“Well they managed to overcook the steak. At best it’s medium, not medium-rare, and under seasoned. The vegetables aren’t roasted at all, they are just calling them roasted because they’re on a skewer, and they’re raw. And, the risotto is just a thick blob of tasteless rice.”

But my pet peeve goes beyond criticizing my restaurant meals, if criticism is necessary. It’s about the MENUS at these restaurants.

Menus serve a purpose. At least, they should. They should inform about the dish, whether an appetizer, entrée, or side dish. They should also be seasonally oriented. I don’t expect a restaurant to change menus daily, but maybe with the 4 seasons?. A strawberry salad on a menu when it’s January makes me nuts.

On a menu, a dish should be described much like you’d describe a recipe. The major ingredients listed first, followed by anything significant. And that dish should be under a clear heading of Salad, or Appetizer, so you know what category of dish it is. The little plate big plate thing can be confusing unless you have a good waiter.

So as I mentioned, my husband and I were out of town and excited to have a few great meals. We typically make travel plans around restaurant reservations.

At lunch, the same lunch where I had the awful cold salad, Hubs chose the chicken strudel, as you can see in the photo below, under SMALL PLATES (which means many different things to different restaurants):

When this dish was served to my husband, he nearly passed out. The whole strudel was smothered with balsamic vinegar, which clearly isn’t listed in the menu description.

He hates vinegar, and he could hardly find any piece of chicken that wasn’t brown from the vinegar. I felt really bad, and was too shocked to document this.

There was too much vinegar for me, even, and I’m a vinegar lover. And why would balsamic vinegar be poured over a dish that is clearly a Southwestern dish?

Furthermore, this was no strudel, which implies layers. The chef could have layered thin slices of chicken, green chiles, Monterey jack within crisped phyllo rectangles, perhaps drizzled with a tomatillo sauce. That could be called a Southwestern-inspired strudel.

Also, this small plate could have fed four people, and looked very unappealing because it resembled a regurgitated casserole. If this dish had been written as below, my husband wouldn’t have ordered it.

Casserole of Chunky Dry Chicken With a few Green Chiles and a bit of Monterey Jack Cheese, topped with a Heavy Drizzle of Balsamic Vinegar

Of course I spoke to the waiter. He didn’t know that balsamic vinegar was an Italian ingredient, and that this dish was obviously Southwestern-inspired. He also wasn’t aware that the balsamic vinegar wasn’t in the menu description. He talked to the chef who simply said, “No one has ever complained before.”

We’ve been lucky enough to travel and dine at high-end establishments, although these are not always my favorites at which to dine. Some of these restaurants are known for their famous chefs, like Eric Ripert, Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Gordon Ramsay, and so forth. But these restaurants have been about perfection. Of course, they should be.

I understand that in the competitive world of restauranteuring, some restaurant owners and chefs feel the need to stand out in some way – sometimes the decor, the dinnerware, a crazy drink menu, something. But there is one thing I’ve noticed at some restaurants: quirky, word-light menus.

For example, this does nothing for me on a menu than piss me off:

Pig, Arugula, Oregano

What? At least highly-rated restaurants typically have knowledgeable servers, but I’d prefer to read a menu, not listen to a list of dishes, because by the end of the descriptions, I’ve already forgotten the details about the first few dishes.

And typos on menus also make me crazy. Like this one:

I don’t think Francios is a French name, and anyone with half a brain should have caught that typo. Plus, it should be François. Restaurants that serve imported wines should be able to type the names correctly, no matter what the language.

And servers who can’t pronounce anything, or help decipher improperly described menu items drive me crazy as well. That’s another post… Thanks for bearing with me!

74 thoughts on “Pet Peeve

  • I know what you mean there is little worse than a bad meal at a restaurant. I rarely say anything for fear of reprisal from the kitchen. I ate at an Indian restaurant a few weeks ago and ordered Chicken Kurma, what they brought out floored me, the color was wrong and off white blob in the dish and when I tasted it I almost threw up, it was so sweet like a dessert I asked the waiter what it was he said it’s what I ordered. I gently told him this dish is not usually this sweet and should have curry or some Indian spices in it and it should never be that sweet. He went back and spoke to the chef who said he used cream in it, I could taste that it was sweetened condensed milk and he thought that was cream. It was completely inedible and a waste of money and now I will never go back to that restaurant. A bad experience in a restaurant can be their kiss of death and haphazard preparation and inconsistencies or deviations from what is on the menu is unacceptable.

    • Oh my. That just reminded me of a time that one of my kids ordered a Southwestern style mac n cheese, and made the most horrible face. So I tasted it, and knew immediately that the milk/cream had gone sour. I went around and around with the waitress, whose husband was the chef, who said that there were 5 cheeses in the mac, and I obviously didn’t have the proper cheese palate. I asked her if she’d ever had Epoisses and I got a blank look. Jeez – it still pisses me off to this day!

  • Ha, good points there CM. I love a good rant. It’s a fine line between truth and artistic description but being disapointed totally sucks. Particularly when we are paying!!

  • I can totally relate. When you dine out you expect good food, if not great. It’s like price tag is increasing and quality is only one deteriorating.

    • That’s why I love Hell’s Kitchen. Gordon (like I know him personally) just wants everyone to cook things properly, and be consistent. And I’ve been to a couple of his restaurants and they were perfect. I don’t think it’s that hard.

  • Oh it’s good to have a rant sometimes :) And I agree with all you’ve said. Small plates have become very popular here in UK – an offshoot from the popularity of Spanish tapas, I think, so that people can share a few things. But they should be SMALL. That’s the point. Balsamic vinegar is just overdone. Some chefs don’t seem to know enough about food to understand it’s not appropriate with everything – and certainly shouldn’t be smothered over anything! Major flavours like that should always be on the menu list. And a good waiter should always be able to explain everything on the menu.

    • US waiters are pretty terrible, unless you’re at a 4 star restaurant. But I agree. And my salad was also smothered with balsamic vinegar – not balsamic vinaigrette. It was too heavy, syrupy and sweet. They probably lose money on balsamic at this restaurant, and have no idea!

  • Oh, I hear you! I once ordered a green salad in the States which arrived buried under unadvertised quantities of cheese and croutons and drenched in a weird orange vinaigrette. So much for a light starter. But bad food is all too common in restaurants here, too, which is why we eat out so infrequently (well, that and I can’t drink and drive). And overblown, adjective-heavy descriptions are just as bad as the word-light menus you mention. Nor do I want to eat anywhere that serves ‘troikas’ of food. [exits, gnashing teeth]

  • I agree with you Mimi, I just had a disappointing experience in a restaurant that was highly recommended with their small plates. Some were ok but most of them where off in flavor and taste. I didn’t say a word but I should have.

    • That’s a tough one, because I’m not a chef, but I do have a lot of experience cooking and eating, and when the “chef” is 24, you can bet he/she hasn’t spent much time traveling and experiencing food. But they just get defensive, and assume you’re an idiot.

  • I loved this post and I’m with you! I love to dine out but I have a few rules I always stick to because restaurants in my area are very expensive and they must be worthy of my money. For example I always order a dish I don’t make at home (what’s the point of having something that I can cook myself and – modesty aside- I probably master better than the chef in the sleek restaurant kitchen? 😜) and I don’t go to restaurants where the servers don’t know the menu and the ingredients better than their social security number! 😜

    • I absolutely agree with you, Francesca, about always ordering something I don’t make at home! Or if I do, it is because I know that the chef makes it better than I do!

    • That’s exactly what we do. My husband will sometimes order a steak at a “finer” establishment, only because many dishes have just one thing that he doesn’t like, or thinks he doesn’t like. But when we travel, especially, it’s an opportunity too try new dishes and certainly dishes that you wouldn’s make at home. Why not? One waitress here recently told us that the special was “groper.” I held back, but finally at the end of the meal I had to tell her that it was grouper. and why the hell hadn’t the chef gone over names and ingredients? makes me crazy.

    • The same here. I prefer to order something special, that I can’t make at home. And when they brought an awful looking/tasting dish , especially after 30 minutes or more of waiting, I just have no words and all the time fav word here is sorry. What should I do with your sorry? I’m paying for the food, so it should be perfect, if it is called a restaurant.

  • I have become quite picky at restaurants, so now I only go to places I trust (or that are recommended by trustworthy friends or critics); where I know the food is fresh, home-made, or where I know the chef. I am lucky in Lille, we have a great choice of excellent (and cheap) places to eat over here, and a unique local tradition as well.
    I am not sure how I feel about menus where each dish gets a long description of what’s in it though! I’d rather read the menu and then ask the waiter a few specifications if I am really worried that I’ll get something unpleasantly unexpected. But usually I just trust the chef (after I’ve carefully picked the restaurant).
    Then if something is wrong, I usually daren’t say so (unless I know the chef and feel comfortable telling him/her)… maybe I should?

    • There’s no correct answer to that question. I’ve never had a good response to pointing things out that are bad. But if something’s bad, and there are only 3 full tables at a restaurant, the chef needs to be fired. Maybe chefs should understand that many diners are very familiar with good and properly cooked food, and respect them more. And I do try to compliment everything wonderful. I just don’t complain.

  • Couldn’t agree more!
    I often wonder why the food in so many places is plain bad, or very mediocre at best. After all, It takes the same amount of effort and time to prepare good or bad food… It’s all about caring and taking pride in your work. Some (most?) people just don’t have it…

  • I loved this post! It is so true. I’ve given up on having high expectations at too many places. I also hate it when they list all the ingredients. It takes me forever to figure out how they are going to use them. I don’t think 4 tiny pieces of microgreens should count as an ingredient.

    • It’s funny you mention microgreens, because it seems for the last two years we ate in England, Wales, and Ireland, microgreens were on everything – practically on porridge. But yes, they’re not a significant ingredient! It’s like mentioning parsley when it’s a garnish.

  • You just verbalise so well what we all feel. We pay hard earned money for those meals and it upsets me so if the food is underwhelming. I also had squid tenticles described to me as squid testicals, hahaha kid you not. The waiter repeated the same little rhyme about the squid “testicals” at every table …….but at least we had comic relief!

    • Did you see my comment about the groper?!!! (grouper) and this is at our finest eating establishment where I live. If I had a restaurant, I’d have everybody taste everything, describe what it is, call it by the proper name, discuss how it’s cooked, and so forth. I just don’t get it. So, how were the squid testicals. Really tiny? That was probably a small plate…

  • Love love love this post, Mimi!
    Couldn’t agree more. I had to laugh out loud about your alternative menu listing, and Kees was asking (from another floor) what was so funny :-)
    I agree with you so much that I would love to rave about food, but that often such simple things are messed up. Like serving food straight from the refrigerator that should be served at room temperature. And you know how I feel about messed up wine pairings…
    I try not to be too verbal about it when the occasion is clearly more about the company than about the food, but still I think it is ridiculous that some people roll their eyes when I complain or even just make a suggestion…

    • I have family members (the family into whom my daughter married) who really must think I’m nuts, because I’m always shaking my head and mumbling something. But once when we were all eating together at our “country club,” a waiter poured the rest of my son-in-law’s martini onto his plate, which included some martini and a couple of olives, because they were “running out of martini glasses.” I sat there with my mouth open, too shocked to say something, and no one else seemed to care!!! This post was about 3 times as long originally, but I tried to cut it back so I didn’t seem to crazy! Glad you got a good laugh my friend!

  • Lmao. I have raged like this over restaurants before but I can’t let it go or laugh about it. I have no tolerance for a subpar restaurant. It’s not that I’m a snob, I just want to see some level of innovation or seasonal element. If I can do it better I shouldn’t be at the restaurant. There is one Mexican place near me with watery drinks, flavorless chicken, old guac…etc. These are basics that any restaurant should nail. RAGE. Lol re the menu typo and non descriptive menu. Almost equally as offensive, but the food is always the biggest problem. It’s not very hard to impress me, but you have to be pretty egregious to inspire my rage.

    • So, here’s something that I was actually thinking about the other day – Mexican restaurants. Why don’t we expect higher standard? Is it because we’re so excited to get chips and salsa? Even sometimes when the chips are ransid and the salsa is watery? It’s so weird. It’s sad that I have to go to a fancy restaurant, for lack of a better word, to get something innovative that I can’t make at home. I don’t like too crazy, either. If you can’t figure out how to cut it with your fork, it’s too weird for me. But just to order a cobb salad, and have overcooked chicken, limpy lettuce, brown avocados…. it’s ridiculous.

  • Mediocrity in the hospitality industry is an international problem! Too many wannabes think they can make a fast buck from unsuspecting punters, and sadly, some do. Refrigerated food is my pet peeve too, that and food arriving that bears no resemblance to what was ordered. Wait staff in Australia is generally pretty good, but then they get paid more than the minimum wage.

    • That’s good to hear. there’s nothing much better than a great waiter. What hospitality professionals need to realize is that diners have become more knowledgeable and need to be respected for that. Food that was previously unavailable is not available via mail order, farmers markets have popped up when there weren’t any, and perhaps people travel more as well. plus, there’s the food network. there are still many people in the US (I know a lot of them) who are happy with a dried up burger on their plates, but not all of us!

  • Ha, ha…we’re the same way with my husband. So sorry you experience was not great. Our small city has very little to offer food-wise and that is why we head to Helsinki when we are looking for something for interesting to eat. Often it seems like we can make a better (perhaps a more simpler) dinner at home.

  • I completely and utterly agree!!
    I am afraid that I rarely eat out nowadays, partly because I think my own food is so much better, and because the vegetarian dishes on offer are usually so uninspiring!

  • Excellent rant with excellent points. With my daughter’s wedding and a long sweaty heat wave here I haven’t been doing much cooking so we’ve gone out to eat quite a bit. I guess we’re lucky being near Boston but also have many really great restaurants available in the immediate area. Every now & then, because of time or just because we’ve gone to some of the local chains and oh my! such a disappointment. I would much rather spend more on a really good meal and enjoy it than go to some of these chains where the food is consistent – consistently bad.

  • Agree wholeheartedly. We have three restaurant from which to choose where I live – at least only three that I’ll set foot in. Even dining at those, one being our country club, it has just become an occasion to have many laughs over the menus, the waiters, and the food. I mean, you gotta laugh.

  • When you know how to cook well, and are used to eating good food, it seems like someone paid to do so should. It’s not like it’s cheap. Like you, when we go out it’s a break and a treat. Who wants to leave disappointed? Sometimes you know a comment just isn’t worth it and just wont go back.

    • Exactly. I think restaurants and chefs need to understand that diners have become more sophisticated, if nothing else but from watching Food Network. We’re not idiots, and we need to be respected.

  • Mimi, I wholeheartedly agree, shake my head and mumble with you! But now you need to post the ‘Director’s cut’ of this post, I can’t stop laughing about the ‘running out of Martini glasses’ – funny but very, very sad indeed. That’s why we eat at home and only go to restaurants if we choose a good one or try out a new one. I’ve had with over ambitious chefs who are better at writing menus than actually cooking them.

    • Or, even, chefs who are better at cooking then writing menus. But there should be some kind of manager who controls menus. My director’s cut was just much more ranting, plus a shot of a menu from one of ny favorite out of town restaurants (Oklahoma City) that has been in business for well over 20 years. It’s one of those perfect restaurants, but their menu is so hysterically bad. There’s no continuity to it, which drives me crazy. But I didn’t think people would want to stare of this menu and spot all of the inconsistencies. I guess they’re so successful that they just don’t give a shit. At least I know I can get good food there, have a good waiter, and enjoy the ambience. Thanks for your comment!

  • Oh Mimi, you are truly speaking for more than just yourself! I FEEL YOU wholeheartedly!!
    I rarely go out to eat. When I tell people this, they look at me like i am strange or something. But honestly, if I am going to go out and spend my good money on food, I am looking for quality! I am hard pressed to find ANY restaurant/diner what have you that stays consistent. Just like you said my friend, that is “key”!!
    Well said!!

    • Thanks, Didi. I honestly wasn’t sure how well people would take to my rant, but it seems like everyone feels like I do. It’s worse for me, I think, because we live in a small town, and people who run restaurants here could just have easily chosen to sell shoes or cars. But that’s why when we’re OUT of town we have higher expectations. I don’t want my meals to look like works of art, I just want quality, like you. And I don’t think that’s too much to expect as a paying diner.

  • I agree Mimi sometimes I wonder why I ever bother to dine out and like you, need a break from the kitchen too. It seems nowadays that consistency is not there and many restaurants don’t pay enough attention to quality and taste :)

    • It’s really a terrible situation. And diners have become more sophisticated in the last 20 years, but chefs/owners tend to not respect us, and dummy-down to us knowing that most of us won’t do anything about it.

  • Oh my gosh – I loved this – especially the rewritten menu item – casserole of chunky dry chicken – pretty sure I’ve ordered that one before! And as for the Pig, Arugula, and Oregano – HILARIOUS. You are so right though. Cold salad, typos, ostentatious-ness, in-your-face service, half warm hot dishes, ridiculous ingredients, and don’t even get me started on restaurant kitchen hygiene… just sometimes a whole lot better to eat at home! Fabulous post Mimi.

    • Thank you! It’s funny, I really shortened this post because I thought I would offend a lot of people in the biz, but I’ve only gotten comments from people who agree, and have shared similar experiences too often. Many of us in the US do not only eat at chain restaurants.

      • I love this topic – I wish you hadn’t shortened it! Made me laugh out loud. I once wrote a restaurant review and commented that I liked the waitress based solely on the fact she didn’t come to the table announcing her name. A lot of people told me that they felt the same way.

  • Misspellings on menus, mispronunciation of ingredients or food names, and – worse – when they tell you their Bolognese is authentic and out of this world… and it is NOTHING like a Bolognese sauce. Do they just make this stuff up?

  • You bring up some very valid points. We plan our travels around eating as well and it is so disappointing to have such high expectations about a destination only to be sorely disappointed once there. More often than not, it is poor service that makes us crazy!

  • Omg I am sympathetic to your frustrations… I find that the better I get at home cooking the higher my standards for restaurants become. Because if I’m going out to eat it you need to wow me or else I might as well have stayed home!!!

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