Choices, Choices: How to Navigate American Restaurant Menus

Too many choices can leave a customer overwhelmed. (FoodRepublic)

Brits are often taken aback at the number of choices when dining out or ordering food in the U.S. Most menus are at least two to three pages, and if you’re in one of those TGIF-type joints, it’s like being handed War and Peace.

If dining in a restaurant, my first piece of advice is to tell the waiter if you’re not ready to order, then pay attention and peruse the menu; there’s nothing more stressful than a foot-tapping, pencil-poised waiter or a table full of hungry friends all waiting for you to figure out what you want. If you’re at a sandwich bar, do not, under any circumstances, approach the counter until you know exactly what you want, and that includes the size of the sandwich. There is often a large chalkboard or wall-mounted menu giving details of every sandwich option under the sun. Spend a little time thinking about what you want, and pay attention to whether it comes with soup or a salad unless you want to be making this decision on the fly.

Rather sensibly, Americans usually eschew a pre-made, wrapped sandwich, preferring a fresh, made-to-order one. This means that while you can’t just run in and grab one, you get exactly what you want, and it’s worth the wait. The number of required questions when ordering such a sandwich, however, makes for a funny scene at the sandwich bar, especially when you add in the British penchant for the word “Please.”

“White or wheat?”

“Wheat, please.”

“Foot long or 6 inch?”

“Six inch, please.”

“Hot or cold?”

“Err, cold, please.”

“What kind of cheese?”

(And don’t say “I don’t mind.”)

And so on.

Really Brits, it’s OK to leave out the occasional “Please;” your server will get the message and no one will tut at you.

In a restaurant, even once you have made your entrée (main course) selection, you often still need to consider your side options (usually two options out of a possible eight or more), what kind of dressing you want on your salad (usually at least ten options), and how well you want your meat or fish cooked (if that’s your choice). Don’t forget that many restaurants have specials, which either the waiter will tell you about or which might be written on a separate piece of paper or a chalkboard on the wall. Yet more choices.

Apparently, many restaurants also have a secret menu you can order from, which increases the choices available about tenfold. Best not even go there if having too many options overwhelms you. At many institutions in the U.S., you can also order “off menu” items, which are dishes that you may not see on the menu that you might fancy anyway. Obviously it depends what the chef has in the kitchen, but it can mean the world is literally your oyster.

As Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “We are our choices!”

See also: how to tip in an American restaurant.

Have you found yourself in a scenario like this? 


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Almost American

    The best secret menus are at Chinese restaurants! When one of our local Chinese restaurants realized we were there at the recommendation of my kids’ Chinese teacher, they brought us a completely different menu!

  • JrsyGrl

    O-M-G. Get over yourselves! I’ve NEVER encountered a toe-tapping, pencil poised waiter in my life! Most are more than happy to come back when you’re ready to order by a simple “Could you come back in a moment, we’re not quite ready.” And they’ll be more than happy. You make us out like we’re all impatient, over indulging and insensitive. Perhaps you just take too long to order. How long do you need? Maybe you’re just not going to the right places. It’s a menu, not a novel. Avoid deli’s and sandwich shops and franchise restaurants like Applebys and Outback. Those places do need quick turnover because of the amount of clientele they get. The sandwich shops “Get in, get out, next” are because most of these places are small so room for a lot of people isn’t available. But these little “mom and pop” shops are, I’m afraid, the best places for the best food. If your finding there’s too much on the menu, then leave. It’s not the place for you. You’re better off at McDonalds for their limited menu.

  • Daisie

    Re: JrsyGrl…from a fellow Jersey Girl…OMG get over YOURSELF! Your response makes it clear that you are the stereotypical type of American that give the rest of us a bad name. Not sure if you have ever even been to the UK but, you do need to realize that the culture in the UK (and all other countries) is a bit different from what you find to be “normal” here in the US. Different does not make something bad.. it simply makes it different..So in future before responding by attacking, maybe you should try to think about what it would be like to actually be a foreigner visiting another country and how small differences such as mentioned in the article can really throw you when it is not what you are used to.

  • gn

    I agree with JrsyGrl that the number of items on the menu is often (but not always) inversely proportional to their quality.

    As an aside, someone ought to mention the Seinfeld Soup Nazi sketch (which I hasten to add is entirely atypical of American restaurants).

  • Christian Lopez

    We just recently hosted a foreign exchange student. A very nice boy from Hamburg, Germany whose head came very near to exploding the first time we took him to a Subway sandwich shop. He quickly adapted and it become one of his favorites. Even after nearly a year I still chuckled when he ordered a chicken breast sandwich. Because of his accent he tended to say “breest”. It was very cute. lol

  • MsCaroline

    Maybe it’s because I’ve never lived in New Jersey, but I’m an American and I’ve encountered the toe-tapping, pencil-poised food server(at least, I know they’re doing it in their minds) many times – especially if I’m in a group and/or at a restaurant I’ve not been to before and am trying to take time to look carefully at the menu. More than once I’ve ordered what someone else just ordered out of desperation and a desire not to be the one ‘holding things up.’ And, fwiw, the servers are not rude or huffy, but one knows (as one’s sitting there under the spotlight, so to speak) that they are in a hurry and would like to get things done as quickly as possible. Here in Seoul, it’s common for them to bring you anywhere from 3-10 side dishes in little bowls along with whatever your entree is, so there’s no decision-making involved there (and since we don’t know enough Korean to choose anyway, there’s no point.) We’ve lived here long enough to recognize the most common ones, but there’s often at least one that is a true mystery!

  • EmmaK

    Have you ever been to the Cheesecake Factory? It has a menu at least 25 pages long. It is totally delicious though just makes my brain explode with too many choices!

  • Lindsey33

    Never really thought about it before, but I guess it can be a bit daunting for those from other countries. When I go out to eat with friends or family it’s usually to a place we’ve been before so I pretty much know what’s on the menu before I get there. Or it might be a place where a certain kind of food is really good so whenever you dine there you get that specific dish. But maybe that’s more applicable to where I’m from – In NJ there are tons of diners and family owned restaurants rather than chain restaurants so certain places are known for certain things. The other stuff – sides, dressings, etc is pretty easy. The waitress/server will prompt you for those things depending on what you order anyway.

    Also, interesting link to the secret menus. Being a vegetarian, I’ve always ordered a grilled cheese when I went to McDonalds… though usually I just get a really confused look while the cashier goes to look for the manager to figure out how to punch it in. But I guess it is pretty true that places like that will make you whatever you want like that, so long they have the ingredients.

  • Birdie

    Ah, the toe tapping waiter. Where I live in America, you get a lot of those, so I usually find something I like that is easy to order quickly and stick with it. The menus are also very long, so everything seems to apply besides the secret menu and the “off menu” items. While there are such things as secret menus for the regulars (and regulars only), if you try to order something “off menu” in an average restaurant around here you will get very confused looks and told that its not served. You can, however, change up the item on the menu as much as you want and be fine. My step-brother commonly orders something and changes most of the ingredients because he says that it’s cheaper than ordering the original menu item of the same definition.