I have a friend who always, always has to request something special when she orders at a restaurant. Yes, she'd like the cheeseburger, but can she have the red-wine reduction that comes with the steak frites instead of ketchup for her fries? Oh, and a side of béarnaise sauce too. She'd also like a vodka soda, but can she have Absolut orange? With a splash of cranberry juice? To paraphrase When Harry Met Sally, she just likes it the way she likes it.
Whether your idea of ordering off-the-menu is the "Animal Style" burger at In-N-Out , or the "Coffee and Donuts" at The French Laundry, diners love the idea of culinary insider trading. It's an easy way to generate buzz, with the added bonus of making customers feel like an instant regular.
Of course, there are always the usual requests: modifications for food allergies or asking for a discontinued favorite dish. "As long as we have the ingredients in house, we'll try to accommodate them," says Stacey Perrone, director of operations for The One Group, which handles Asellina and STK in New York City. "We have a lot of guests who are vegetarian, and our chef will put together something like a vegetable medley with truffle sauce."
And while it's one thing to ask for a "Land, Sea and Air" burger at McDonald's (which boasts, terrifyingly enough, a beef, filet-o-fish, and chicken patty), it's high-end restaurateurs that are making off-menu requests a serious part of their repertoire.
"Regulars are always the best customers because they challenge you," says Jean-Georges Vongerichten of New York City's Jean Georges and ABC Kitchen. "It's like haute couture—you have to create a special dress for everybody, like if you know they like plain steamed lobster with spicy butter. It's part of success."
Do you indulge customers' off-the-menu requests? Or do you have a strict "no substitutions" policy?
CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel. @clarissanyc1