To much of the restaurant-going world, chefs seem to have exchanged “the customer is always right” with another saying: “No substitutions.” Seeing those two words at the bottom of a menu can sour the mood, if not your palate, before you’ve even taken the first bite. It’s a needlessly pre-emptive, passive-aggressive kind of note. Imagine if a hotel contract stated: “Don’t even think about asking us if you can stay in your room past noon.” It’s one thing to have a policy and quite another to deny a request before it’s even been made.
And yet, the increasingly ubiquitous no-substitutions policy is a reaction to customer demands run amok. But rather than choose a side, I think there’s a middle ground - a set of rules that, if followed by both restaurant owners and patrons alike, could benefit everyone. First, let’s take a close look at where each side is coming from.
Many chefs already strive to meet customer substitution demands; the “soup or salad” options and the mix-and-match style of “choose one side dish with your entree” provide some choices (and technically the menu itself is a list of options, of course). More important, many dishes require advance preparation that just can’t be easily undone (it’s hard to take the egg out of the Hollandaise sauce though not so tough to remove the bacon from the BLT.)
At the extreme are chefs who view their dishes as uncompromisable edible artworks, seeking to create a composition that perfectly balances the colors, textures, and flavors on a plate - regardless of what’s best for the customer. You want the balsamic-glazed roasted beets instead of the locally foraged ramps? But...that would be red instead of green!
On the dining public's side:
Customers must realize that they don’t have to eat at restaurants that don’t serve food the way they like it. Not all restaurants are greasy-spoon diners where you get to explain to the server exactly how to cook and prepare the eggs. “Have it your way” is a Burger King slogan, not a universal service industry mantra. And, no, you really shouldn’t expect to be able to take the side from one entrée and move it to another entrée like some sort of mix-and-match exercise.
That said, there are medical and religious concerns that merit more than a snide “we don’t care about your silly whims” from eating establishments. They are:
1. I’m allergic to...
Almost every other substitution demand I can think of is arbitrary, impulsive or childishly picky - not that this should stop anyone from making these kinds of requests anyway. It can’t hurt to ask for the sweet potato fries instead of mashed potatoes.
A rational compromise - a solution that would end the debate - it seems to me, would be to have a menu that has at least one dish that meets the needs of all of the potential diners above. I am not suggesting that every dish ought to be so malleable as to please all the people all the time, but if I take my vegetarian wife out for brunch, it’s ridiculous if every dish has meat in it (unless, perhaps, I’m dining at the chef’s table at my local butcher).
As a final note, you should not have to pay extra for your substitution unless the waiter tells you in advance and you have agreed to the fee. It’s usually not the money that’s so irksome; it’s the principle - as one writer noted when he discovered an extra $1.50 tacked on to the bill for, yes, the replacement of sweet potato fries with mashed potatoes. Was that really necessary?
Have I sided too much with the chef or the customer? If the hate mail is balanced by viewpoints from both sides I’ll know I got it right.