How to Order Like a Food Critic
Former New York Times Chief Restaurant Critic Frank Bruni shares his top dining-out tips.
Gourmet meals are one of life's supreme pleasures, but nothing's more frustrating than scoring a top table only to order wrong and squander the experience — especially when the majority of your days are spent eating and exercising diligently. We caught up with Frank Bruni, former New York Times chief restaurant critic, to get his knowledge from five years of professional eating, and quizzed him for advice on dining out like a pro.
1. When should you go?
Since low energy can kill a restaurant experience, Bruni is a big fan of trying out new places on Thursday nights. "You get a little of the weekend excitement but you don’t necessarily get the full-throttle craziness of the weekends, logjams at the bar and frazzled servers," he says.
It’s also always a good idea to give a new restaurant some breathing room. The usual wisdom is three months, but Bruni finds that two months can sometimes be better. "They know critics are coming in, and they’re still excited and attentive and have kind of maximum euphoria," he says.
Sure, you can wing it with a new restaurant and order with your gut when you arrive, but Bruni says there’s no reason to abstain from reading about the experiences of others before you arrive. He does caution that user-generated reviews like Yelp are often biased, but if you "triangulate against independent critical opinion" (i.e., the pros) or just look for repeated patterns over many reviews (like one dish mentioned several times), you can mostly correct for any bias.
3. Do only amateurs ask waiters for advice?
If the waiter seems knowledgable, Bruni recommends giving a little guidance (i.e., what kinds of flavors you like or are in the mood for) in order to get more personalized recommendations based on your palate and preferences. Otherwise, the rec will usually be "either based on what the majority of people like best or what dish is the [waiter’s] favorite."
4. Should you go for the special?
Bruni does caution, though, that "in a less nice restaurant, the special can be what they’re trying to move out of the fridge." Consider the seasonality of the special’s ingredients and the overall quality of the restaurant’s cooking before going outside the menu.
5. Antipasti, Primi, Secondi ... how much is too much?
Ultimately, eating out should be about more than just filling your belly. "How much you order in a restaurant should be determined by how much of an appetite you have, how much of the chef’s food you want to try and how much you have to spend," he explains. Strike the perfect balance and you can consider yourself successfully wined and dined.