There are three kinds of restaurants.
1. There are those whose menus are set in stone, no substitutions allowed. There could be logistical reasons for this, but as we all suspect, it is more likely a certain rigidity in the chef’s disposition. A classic example is April Bloomfield’s Spotted Pig in NYC. The burger comes with blue cheese, and if you don’t like it, you can take a hike (or order something else).
2. There are those whose menus offer total flexibility. This approach suggests a fluidity between ingredients and a desire to make patrons’ tastes…er, relevant. Okay, it might be that there isn’t a chef, per se, that guests may know just as well, say, at a diner. At a finer restaurant, this kind of flexibility signifies that everything is made to order and that there is a conversation going on between the guest and the kitchen. I never feel so welcome as when a server at BlackSalt in D.C. tells me I can have any protein on the menu with any other preparation on offer, oh, and anything from the fish market on the way in is also an option. And, frankly, I never take them up on it. There’s a trust there based on respect.
(Note, this is an easy win-win with the sommelier. Let them (or your server) know what you will be ordering and your price range and save your eyes the task of peering over an immense wine list in dim lighting.)
3. The are those restaurants, which shall remain nameless, that will accept changes to the menu, but not without a big show of checking with the chef. This quickly alters the dynamic. All of a sudden, the restaurant, the chef is doing you a huge favor. All those images of the five-second rule hang over the table like a musical mobile and a feeling of dread sets in, as your whole table must wait in ordering limbo.
I absolutely hate ordering off the menu or substituting ingredients, but I’ll do it, because the endeavor is a shared one. It shouldn’t be taken as a slight, just as it isn’t meant as one. And there is a very easy way around it. (See No. 2)