Meg Ryan as Sally Albright memorably faked a climax at a New York diner in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally. The big O-moment didn’t add as much sex appeal to pastrami on rye as it did cement itself as the gold-standard for comedic cinematography. (The Academy can’t seem to make it through an Oscar’s montage without including the clip.) Katz’s Deli, where Rob Reiner shot the scene, may not experience raunchy behavior on a daily basis, but restaurant staff members everywhere frequently take high-maintenance requests from picky eaters. Harry (Billy Crystal) cringes at the pie Sally ordered earlier in the movie:
“I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top. I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of the can, then nothing.”
We’ve all eaten out with that person-be it a friend, co-worker, relative, boss or date. And almost always, the speaker justifies his or her demands: I’m a paying customer; I’m picky; I’m not allergic, but I don’t want my order messed up; etc. These days, morality grounds new rationalizations made by needy restaurant-goers about their grass-fed, local, GMO-free and organic demands.
Admittedly, I am a food snob (I read about pink slime; my Netflix is cued with documentaries about corn and school lunches; Nestle, Pollan, and Bittman are my holy trinity), but at restaurants, I try to withhold from asking questions about my meals. I’ve resigned to ordering what’s most comfortable, or playing naïve and considering my dining experience an infrequent indulgence. But eating out doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your personal food values or being seen as pretentious. Here are some ways you can get exactly what you want without making a scene:
- Know the setting: BK and Taco Bell aren’t offering grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef, and you’ll be holding up every other boozy customer at 2am if you insist on checking. A joint like Edzo’s Burger Shop in downtown Evanston that advertises a grass-fed product, or any Chipotle where signage promotes dairy free of the r-bgh additive will likely answer your questions. Words like “locally-sourced” or “heritage” on a menu are green lights for your questions.
- Know the timing: Don’t overburden your server, other patrons, or your own company. If the restaurant’s too packed or your waiter is frazzled, know when to choose the option you’re already knowledgeable about.
- Prioritize your questions: Ask only the ones you’re serious about. If you’d like to hear about the bison burger, but you’re really leaning towards the salmon, ask if its wild-caught and dye-free. If you’re dissatisfied with the answers, then, and only then, ask how far the bison meat traveled to your plate.
- Mock yourself: Most importantly, a bit of self-deprecating humor goes a long way. Let your server know that you appreciate his or her time and the information is not for naught. This trick even works for those whose Starbucks orders sound like Shakespearean sonnets. Ex: “I know you’ll probably think I’m the worst…” or “I’d like to apologize in advance…” or even “My friends will never take me anywhere again after this, but…”