Wednesday, June 05, 2013

What's the Deal with Restaurant Specials, Anyway?

Last week Michael Pollan dictated seven "Rules for Eating Out" to help hapless patrons navigate the uncertainties of restaurant dining. Predictably, there was backlash, and among the more amusing responses was Josh Ozersky's point by point rejoinder on the Esquire Eat Like a Man blog.

I was particularly struck by Pollan's rule #5: "If there are daily specials, order them. Usually means fresh ingredients and a thoughtful preparation."

Ozersky's response was this: "Specials were invented to get rid of old food. That's the primary 'thought' behind their preparation, and it basically consists of a dollar bill with wings on it."

So which is it? I ran back through my own experience working at restaurants and eating in them, and while I remember some examples of specials meant to use up an item before it went bad, I don't remember anyone ever sending outright bad, spoiled food on the old blue plate. And, there are innumerable examples of chefs who run specials because they get in a particularly good fish that day or have something creative they want to flex their muscles on.

And that's when I had this heretical thought: what the hell difference does it matter? Yes, if you eat a special and end up hugging the commode all night long with food poisoning, then it makes a difference, and you would never go back to that restaurant. But, if you have a brain and listen to the waiter's description and think the special sounds good, and it comes out and tastes good and you enjoy it, isn't that all that matters?

Reductive rules like "always order the special" seems to assume that restaurant patrons are clueless when it comes to how to order. Are we really so uncertain about how to navigate the modern food world that we need lists of easy-to-understand, black-and-white rules to guide us?

The answer, I'm afraid, judging by the popularity of "rules" and "eat-this-not-that" and "10 simple tricks" books and lists, is that we probably are. So I have just one rule to add to the mix: "Trust your tastebuds: you know more than you think you do."

1 comment:

nmisscommenter said...

Bourdain wrote about specials-as-bad-food in his first book, and maybe even in the excerpt the New Yorker ran, but it was clear to me he was writing about a really third-rate sort of restaurant.

I know enough about what goes on in the kitchen of a couple of restaurants here in Oxford to think this rule really doesn't work across the board. City Grocery's specials consistently are made with ingredients that are bought for that days special and are not on the menu in other dishes, for instance.

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