At Your Service: When Is It OK to Make Special Requests?


"Hold the onions."
"Can you put the Bernaise on the side?"
"Can I add pork instead of chicken?"

Servers field special requests daily. Most diners don't feel totally comfortable asking. How do you know when you're crossing the line? And how do chefs really feel about making all these exceptions? There's only one way to find out. Ask them.  

When is it OK to make special requests? When is it asking too much?

Ken Zankel, owner, The Grove (Pac Heights, Marina, Hayes Valley, SoMa)
It is the guest's taste or diet or allergies, and the guest's money, so we try to honor most requests. The only caveat is that each dish was very carefully composed by our executive chef Jeffrey Saad to have a particular flavor, texture, and visual. Once a guest veers off of that, it is now 'their dish' for better or worse. It's not possible—for obvious reasons—to remove or add an ingredient to a dish that is batch-cooked, like meatballs, chicken pot pie filling, lasagne, soups, chili or chocolate chip cookies. Or, for example, we roast all our own meats in-house. Once a chicken or turkey has been roasted, we can't season it differently. This is common sense, but we don't normally get requests that are not possible to fulfill."

Greg Dunmore, executive chef, Nojo
"Something like sauce on the side or no tomato are generally fine requests because they don't modify the dish too much and are easy to do. It's when someone requests something that completely alters the dish and it is a burden for the kitchen to produce, that sometimes it becomes too much. In the end, we must remember, it is about our guests. If they enjoy it that way, mission accomplished."

Thomas Martinez, executive chef, Mission Beach Cafe
"Our policy is that we try to accommodate every guest's request, but we do have to draw the line somewhere for the efficacy of running our small kitchen. The most common request is to get something on the side, which is fine. When a guest asks to switch out certain ingredients or add an ingredient that isn't part of the original dish, we have to say no. One time a guest ordered our burger and asked to have every ingredient on the side so he could put the burger together himself (caramelized onions, cheese, lettuce, etc.).  In that instance, we accommodated it, but wouldn't do it again as it really slows down our kitchen. Sometimes guests come in with really restrictive dietary demands, and it seems they;re looking for public validation of their eating habits. If people have stringent dietary restrictions, it's best to call us in advance to talk to us and we can prepare something for them." 


No Problem: Sauce on the side
Shady Territory: Switching out something that completely alters the dish 
Call Ahead: If you have strict dietary restrictions
No Way: Asking to put a dish together yourself

Are you a special request maker? Tell us about your latest gripes and raves in the comments section.  
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