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“Bring us waters and the dictionary, please.”

Black truffle poularde from "French Laundry" (Photo Credit Jenny Turknett)

Black truffle poularde from "French Laundry" (Photo Credit Jenny Turknett)

I found myself on a recent evening dining with a friend at a “fine dining” establishment. You know the type; valet only, low lighting and a piano player. One that has “$$$$” listed next to the name on Urbanspoon. The server presented us with a binder (it was just the wine list) and two heavy menu books, before striding away to get us “tap” water.  We turned our attention to peruse the menu.

There was a silence before my friend asked, “Um, so this may be stupid, but what is fromage blanc?”
I explained.
A few seconds later she asked, “Sorry, what is a remoulade? Or a soffrito?”

I do my research on food, so I was able to answer her questions, but it made me realize how intimidating menu lingo can be. I think of Octopus Bar, an insider spot with items like “sake-marinated ikura” and “tongue of fire beans.” If only I could bring my “Food Lover’s Companion” with me. Sometimes to humor myself, I’ll pull out my phone under the table and Google the foreign terms.

If you want to eat adventurous, you’re bound to encounter a list of terms that sound more like prose than a plate of food. I often have trouble distinguishing if it’s a distributor or variety. “Freemantle octopus” (distributor) or “perigord black truffle” (variety.)

How do you handle a fine dining menu? Do you ask the servers to clarify? Or do you just wing it, placing your trust in the restaurant’s positive ratings?

-By Alexa Lampasona for the Food & More blog

18 comments Add your comment


January 13th, 2014
10:27 am

clarify. I dont want to end up with something spendy that I dont like


January 13th, 2014
10:28 am

First time I went to Bacchanalia with a group of friends one of us brought along a food dictionary!

Native Atlantan

January 13th, 2014
10:34 am

Google is your friend in times like this. I use it early and often when the menu is beyond my knowledge.


January 13th, 2014
10:55 am

The Varsity conveniently provides a translational index on the backs of their promotional photos.

However, a Star Fleet-issued Tricorder is needed to translate the language and dialect of the folks behind the counter.


January 13th, 2014
12:04 pm

Ah, small plates with $$$$ prices. I’ll pass.

david c

January 13th, 2014
12:44 pm

This article makes my brain hurt.

Ned Ludd

January 13th, 2014
12:56 pm

My non-provable opinion is that this is an enjoyable part of the meal. Conversation amongst oneselves and the server is as important part of the meal as the food. We enjoy asking each other questions and by and large the server enjoys discussing them. Although I still wonder what was being offered at a restaurant in Austria which advertised ‘Man Soup’.


January 13th, 2014
12:59 pm

There have been times that I really wanted to try a dish, but didn’t order it because I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. It shouldn’t be so much work to have a nice meal.


January 13th, 2014
1:25 pm

This is interesting. When I was younger and trying to impress dates, I ordered many items that came out as complete surprises. The only reason I ordered a salade nicoise at a NM cafe in Dallas was because I could pronounce and afford it.

Now I’m pretty versed in food language, but I still ask questions all the time. E.g. at what temperature do you recommend the steak? what is the price of the special you just described? what is this cheese like? I’ve found these questions unnerve business dining companions and surprise waitstaff.


January 13th, 2014
2:41 pm

I would leave.


January 14th, 2014
8:23 am

I usually take a look at the menu ahead of time and brush up on anything that really stumps me. That said, I’m not adverse to pulling out the iPhone and Googling menu items during the meal. I agree with Ned Ludd, it can be a fun part of the dinner conversation. I think this descriptive trend is a bit overdone in many places, as if most diners know the difference between White Oak Pastures and Old MacDonald.


January 14th, 2014
9:05 am

nsk… question you could ask the wait staff would be; why does 3 spoonful of soup cost $18.00.


January 14th, 2014
12:07 pm

Not fair, Baltisraul, ask them a question they can answer! Waiters have nothing to do with the setting of prices.


January 14th, 2014
3:57 pm

Excellent article and exactly what non-foodies encounter at high quality restaurants


January 14th, 2014
9:58 pm

rebelliousrose….sorry, you are right. I stand corrected!


January 15th, 2014
7:14 am

Nursemon……your are fooling yourself. Not all foodies have the same standards or values about what constitutes a quality meal. Non-foodies, whatever that is, have brain cells also.


January 16th, 2014
2:57 pm

I am pretty sure the menus are worded that way so that you WILL ask questions. It is expected and like Ned Ludd says, should inspire conversation between the server and patrons. It should be learning experience, and patrons shouldn’t be embarrassed, snooty, or hipster-esq to ask questions. That said, overly descriptive menus can just be tedious to read and ignorant servers make certain places dud. If you have menus or dishes like that, why don’t you educate the waitstaff? That is an inexcusable sin committed by some owners/managers.


January 18th, 2014
11:36 am

I agree with John. Never be afraid to ask questions. Or, to learn. The distributor/variety things can be confusing, but also important. I like when a place knows what variety of oysters they’re using, and also knowing that it’s Spring Mountain chicken on the sandwich, for example. Don’t feel intimidated. It honestly annoys me that people do. All restaurants can’t just say “chicken and lemon butter sauce”. But, if your server can’t gracefully answer your question, then yes, go elsewhere.