When Every Meal Is A Test: Take The Restaurant Challenge!

Today, Frank Bruni has a terrific piece about the dining idiosyncrasies he's encountered over the years as a professional critic. But he's never met me, or the Ordering Challenge. It will change your life, and not in a good way.

If you know me, you have done the Ordering Challenge. Maybe you didn't know you were competing, but you were. To me and my brother, every meal out is a test and an ordeal. At the beginning, it was all so innocent: a response to our parents' terrible ordering at ourregular Sunday diner breakfasts growing up. Maybe because we've both logged a lot of time on the other side of the ordering pad, my brother and I find their respective fussiness and dithering cringe-inducing. My dad's picky, his order full of exceptions and substitutions and stuff on the side. And my mom is of the type who doesn't even glance at the menu until the server appears - and then talks about her options, in a roguish ingratiating manner, for endless minutes, while Charlie and I apologize mutely in anguished shame.

So, at first, we just wanted to make up for it. We instinctively tried to keep our own orders efficient-to know what we wanted before the waiter arrived, to plan backups in case our first choice was unavailable.
But gradually, our quest for ordering excellence became competitive. Charlie would stare at me intently as I ordered, looking for a mistake, a wasted moment, a slip. I started to study menus with rapt attention. Observing this, my father wondered aloud why we couldn't apply this efficiency and focus to other spheres of our lives.

We decided to implement parameters. The goal of the game was to order in one go, and so comprehensively that the server would not be forced to ask for even a single clarification. As such, every variable had to be examined, every corner of the menu explored, lest something-a complimentary glass of juice on a pre-set breakfast menu, for instance-go unnoticed.

One receives a point for every variable in the order-complexity is rewarded-and a deduction for every clarification the server requests.

For example: "I'd like two eggs over medium, please; bacon, crisp; home fries; rye toast, buttered; a small grapefruit juice; and a coffee. Thank you."

The above order, while deceptively simple, is rife with pitfalls:

1. Number of eggs and their manner of preparation

2. Bacon (and, optionally, the degree of crispness of said bacon)

3. Type of potato-do not assume! Sometimes there is a choice of French fries or even the option of home fries versus hash browns, especially on the West Coast

4. Variety of toast, and choice of butter (sometimes they ask)

5. Type of juice

6. Size of juice (a common beginner's omission)

7. Hot drink-sometimes there is a choice of coffee or tea!

Breakfast is a very good opportunity for the game, given the number of factors involved. Once breakfast is mastered, one may move on to other meals, and even other cuisines. With lunch and dinner, there is more likelihood of a restaurant having run out of dishes, plus the wild card of an appealing special, only revealed at the last minute. For these meals, one needs a cool head and flexibility. Backup choices are mandatory in every category; a true pro will have third choices, too.

Ethnic restaurants present the problem of pronunciation; ordering by a dish's menu "number," while allowed, is regarded as cowardly.

As in any sport, there are factors one can't control: a waiter who's hard of hearing or whose English isn't good? Bad luck. A confusing menu that doesn't list all its sides? Too bad. Them's the breaks. Learn from them and become stronger.

To succeed at the Ordering Game, you have to get in the zone, to a place so calm and assured that your opponent's unblinking scrutiny goes unnoticed. While practice and strategy help, it's a simple fact that some people have a natural talent for the game, while others are destined to founder. My brother and I are particularly well matched; while I have a better eye for a menu's details, I can't match him for cool, or the intimidation of his stare. Indeed, sometimes I start to giggle hysterically, in which case I forfeit a whole round. And make the waiter uncomfortable.

When eating out with friends, Charlie and I developed the disconcerting habit of silently scoring our oblivious dining companions as they ordered. They, in turn, noticed our unusual absorption in diner menus, then strange, rapid-fire ordering. When we let people in on the game, they became nervous and exhilarated. Every meal was suddenly fraught with danger.

Sometimes, it must be admitted, the efficiency of our ordering took our servers aback. Accustomed to the more relaxed pace of amateurs, they'd balk when faced with such perfectionism. But I've received a barely perceptible nod of approval from the famously cranky staff of a local deli, and even a "Great ordering!" from the crusty old-timer at a venerable Brooklyn steakhouse. After a year or so of the Challenge, I realized I was literally unable to order normally. I was appalled one day to realize I was scoring a potential employer at a business lunch. On dates, I'd look up, irritated, if spoken to while studying the menu, stare fixedly at my date while he ordered, and then list my own choices with machine-gun rapidity. Needless to say, if he scored low, a second date was out.

Says Bruni of his dining companions, "Each guest seemed to think that what he or she wound up ordering was a matter of identity, a reflection of self." In my case, ordering's the only case where I bring such efficiency and high standards to my life, a chance to get things right. The funny part is, when I was a waitress myself, I didn't care less how people ordered, as long as they were reasonably courteous. But, even as I've managed to tone down the obsessive qualities of the Challenge, I still secretly try to do it - for myself. And of course, my brother.


What They Brought To The Table
[NY Times]