Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Isn't That Special?: I got a letter from a perplexed reader asking for my opinion about an unhappy dining experience.

Her group was eating at an upscale Italian restaurant, a place they visited several times a year.

The server went through the list of specials, but she didn't volunteer the prices and the group didn't ask. My correspondent notes they'd ordered specials many times in the past, and the prices had always been comparable to the entree prices on the menu.

This time, though, they weren't. The most expensive item on the regular menu was $26.95. But the veal chop special checked out at a whopping 35 bucks. The day's fish special, orange roughy, was priced at $25, not out of line with some of the dishes. Still, it was $9 more than an almost identical menu item, one which featured shrimp instead of orange roughy.

The group asked the server why she hadn't mentioned the prices of the daily specials. She explained that management had reprimanded her for doing so, because business folks entertaining clients didn't like it when cost was mentioned.

The letter concludes: "We certainly don't wish to appear penurious, but this [explanation] seemed a little questionable. Is it possible to ask the price of specials, without appearing 'cheap' if the server doesn't mention it? Is it good practice in a fine restaurant for the server to quote the price of specials? What do you think?"

Well, I think all the parties here need a little straightening out. In the first place, buying a restaurant special is not the same as purchasing a yacht: Just because you ask the price, it doesn't necessarily mean you can't afford it. You have every right to weigh what economists call the dish's marginal utility. If you want a yacht, you want a yacht. A rowboat isn't a fallback option. But a veal chop isn't a yacht, and a less pricey alternative may suit you equally well.

Worried about appearing cheap? That's twaddle. How many other things in your life do you buy without inquiring about their cost? I'm not suggesting you haggle over the price of the special, as if you were in a bazaar. ("Thirty-five bucks for a veal chop! Do I look like a tourist? I'll give you $28.50, and that's my final offer.") But it's not as if the menu isn't already printed with prices for every other item.

Management's explanation that business people with expense accounts don't want clients thinking about mundane money matters doesn't wash. This kind of misplaced, money-is-no-object gentility is absurd, especially when you consider that host, client and restaurateur all know quite well that the accounting department will be writing off the meal as a business expense.

The burden should be on the restaurant to reveal what it's charging for its goods. If it doesn't volunteer the information, and you don't ask, you're at a disadvantage. There's nothing "cheap" about inquiring.

"Don't ask, don't tell" is dumb military policy. It doesn't work any better with restaurants.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel