Read the menu ahead of time if you want, you’re an adult

Photo: dejankrsmanovic (iStock)

Yesterday, Eater published a story called “The Liberation of Not Looking at the Menu,” by Nick Mancall-Bitel. It first appeared in the site’s newsletter The Move earlier this month. Essentially, Mancall-Bitel argues that, except in cases of dietary restrictions, we, the great collective we, should stop reading restaurant menus before going to restaurants in hopes of being more open to the whims of others, and ourselves. Like so (emphasis his):

I’ve enjoyed meals much more by avoiding the menu before reaching the table. Going in without preconceived notions heightens your senses and allows you to form unbiased gut impressions. It lets your stomach, rather than your mind, lead the conversation, and rewards a la minute cravings. It also opens the door to discovery, allowing you to freely explore unpopular (that’s “untapped,” to you) regions of the menu. Branching away from a predetermined ordering plan means you can take cues from the environment around you, like the influencer snapping IG pics of a sizzling platter or the server who won’t stop ranting about the “Nobel Prize-worthy” oysters (whether he’s right or wrong, it’s definitely worth finding out). It’s a relief to shrug off the pressure to optimize the dining experience and go with the flow.

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Mancall-Bitel writes that he “found liberation” by avoiding the menu before arriving at the restaurant. I am very glad for him. I am also glad that I clicked through to read the story, because the headline that pops up when the story is shared through social media is “Stop Looking at Restaurant Menus Ahead of Time,” and as a grown-ass woman who is just really tired of being told what to do by strangers on the internet, my click was not a happy one. This is a piece about personal experiences dressed up like it’s one that’s just there to boss you around. Ignore the bossing, and you see a guy writing about a thing that works for him.

But it’s really hard to ignore the bossing, or the many, many assumptions made about the reader, or the hypothetical diner (presumably one not unlike the Mancall-Bitel of yore) who still foolishly reads the menu in advance and thus makes themselves and everyone around them miserable. So let me say this: You, dear reader, can find your liberation in doing whatever the hell you want with regard to the menu. You can read it. You can skim it. You can check Yelp. You can find the joint’s Instagram. You can phone a friend. You can just show up at the designated time, having done nothing but looked up the address. Or you can call an Uber and not even do that and just type in the name. The world is your oyster. You are a grown-ass adult and your reasons for reading the menu are your own.

A brief list of reasons you might want to read the menu in advance:

  • You’re on a budget.
  • You’re a person with some really strong preferences—like maybe you don’t like sweets for breakfast and you want to make sure the ridiculous pancake place also serves eggs and bacon, or you’ve got the cilantro-hating gene, or you can’t stand onions, or round food.
  • You’re indecisive (like me! This is me!) and knowing full well that you will still be indecisive when you show up, you can at least narrow the field.
  • You get more excited for a meal when you get to think about it beforehand (this is also me!)
  • There’s this recurring nightmare you have about a lasagna that devours you whole, and if you so much as glimpse a lasagna it will ruin your whole day.
  • Curiosity.
  • Boredom.
  • Fun.

If you’re a person who reads the menu, Mancall-Bitel and likeminded others can offer you a little present. He writes:

If your dining partners are also the types to research the menu, let them have the small victory of choosing. If you’re sitting across from out-of-towners or in-laws or children or any non-omnivore you’d normally coerce into a group order, excitedly embrace their preferences.

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He particularly trumpets the virtues of menu-abstinence with regard to group meals, and not just because of the gifts the hypothetical diner gets to give. Knowing what’s available before you arrive puts the menu-reader in a bad position: “If you plan the entire meal ahead of time, you will undoubtedly meet resistance from your fellow diners on at least some selections.”

That, he argues, leaves only two options. The first is a tyrannical rule over the meal, where this hypothetical diner exerts authority over all their companions and decides on every single thing that’s brought to the table. The second is the devastating blow that the hypothetical diner feels after not getting to eat every single thing they wanted to eat at this restaurant, which I assume must be closing the very next day, since Hypothetical Diner will obviously never be able to eat there again. Maybe it’s a seasonal menu? Maybe Hypothetical Diner only orders the specials? Who knows.

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Those options do sound bad. But whether you’re reading the menu or not, there are other options. Again, a brief list.

  • If you are dead set on eating exactly what you want without compromise, you can do that! You just order for you, and they order for them, and if you decide to share something you split that. You can even still have one check and just do the math and work it out with Venmo or whatever. There is a calculator on your phone. There are apps for exactly this purpose. People do it every day. Sure, it’s annoying and doing the tax is weird, and maybe the guy who ordered a bunch of pricey drinks wants to split it evenly and you have to say no because you just had a beer, but that’s fine! It’ll all be fine.
  • If you are sharing, just go in with the assumption that of course you will not be making decisions for the entire table because there are other people there and they have minds and tastes of their own. You will still get to pick some things, because you are also a person with free will.
  • And if you’re really, really intent on ordering what you want, when you want, without input from others or any need to negotiate the social situations that might come up, then you can always go by yourself. (That’s me! I love flying solo sometimes!)
  • And last, just be prepared for disappointment, because you’re a person in the world and it happens.
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So read the menu, or don’t. You’re a grown-up. The better advice is—and it’s advice Mancall-Bitel gives too, when he writes of giving others the small victory of ordering—that no matter what you do, you should just be cool to everyone. And when you get there, if you like a nice Aperol Spritz, then by god, you drink one.

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About the author

Allison Shoemaker

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.