The Need-To-Know Etiquette For Ordering Menu Substitutions

Restaurant menus are there for a reason; restaurant management doesn't want its guests ordering indiscriminately. Instead, it wants guests to confine their selections to dishes the kitchen is familiar with and prepared to make with fresh and available ingredients. Often, the chosen menu items are a reflection of the chef's culinary sensibilities or expertise, and every ingredient is included in the exact proportion the chef has deemed appropriate. Meaning, any attempt to change or substitute ingredients risks annoying the person in charge of preparing your meal. 

Does that mean it's never appropriate to try to request menu changes in a restaurant, particularly a fancy one? Not necessarily. According to our expert, Rob Salese, Restaurant and Lounge Manager of NoMa Social at Hotel NoMa in New Rochelle, New York, there are valid reasons for requesting substitutions, including one that should be accepted in every type of restaurant, from fast food franchises to fine dining establishments. 

"I would certainly say that food allergies are a situation where substitutions are completely understandable and acceptable," Salese notes. "Ensuring that every customer is served a meal they can safely enjoy is always imperative." But it's still important to observe proper restaurant etiquette and to request the substitution in a respectful way.

Is it always acceptable to request menu substitutions?

Food allergies are the obvious situation where it's appropriate to request menu substitutions. Even chefs who are adamantly opposed to allowing menu substitutions will accede under these circumstances. Chefs do not want people to become ill from food that they or their staff have prepared because that's not good for business. Requesting substitutions for other reasons, however, is apt to get a lot more pushback. What if you just don't like one of the side dishes, for example, and would prefer an alternative? Or what if the menu explicitly states that the restaurant does not accept substitutions, but you want to make one anyway?

Restaurant staff may not rejoice at these sorts of requests, but as Salese points out, it's not inappropriate to ask for accommodation. "We are in an industry, where there is almost always a 'shade of gray.' With that said, depending on the meal in question while keeping in mind a respect for the chef's art, there can be room for some 'negotiation.'"

But it's not a given that you're going to get your way. It's incumbent upon you, as the person making the request, to follow restaurant etiquette, which in this case, means making your request in the right way, and at the right time.

How to request menu substitutions without annoying the chef

What's the right way to get a recalcitrant chef to agree to an unwanted substitution? For starters, route the request through the correct channels. Meaning, initiate a conversation with the server about your request and politely ask that it be presented to the chef. Don't demand anything. Instead, ask only that the chef consider the change. Be polite and deferential, as this demeanor will improve your chances of success. It's okay that your palate is different from the people preparing your meal. Just be respectful of their expertise when couching a request.

Timing is important, too. Calling ahead is often recommended, especially if the request is a bit complicated. If it's a simple case of substituting one ingredient for another, then this request can be handled at the table in consultation with your server. But Salese cautions: "If it is a severe food allergy/allergies for a large group reservation with multiple concerns or substitution requests, I would certainly recommend a call ahead to ensure that all can be accommodated to reduce any concerns or discrepancies in advance."

Respect and consideration for others are the foundational aspects of all restaurant etiquette. Keep this in mind always, and remember that restaurant menus are created for very good reasons. Thus, if you want to request a change, you should have a good reason, too.