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?