Saving Money

The Best Restaurant Deals May Be Off The Menu

photo: Glenn Loos-Austin

Sometimes, the menu is just a suggestion.

Ordering off a restaurant’s menu — tweaking a few ingredients to fit taste or dietary preferences or, at the other extreme, ordering something that isn’t listed at all — can be a fantastic deal. After all, you’re getting exactly the meal you want for your money. If part of the request is getting a half-sized or kiddie portion of a regular dish, you can even cut the bill.

But off-menu requests can backfire. Presented in the wrong way or during a busy dinner service, they’re flat-out annoying. Some restaurants are more receptive than others, too.

Here’s how to secure the best off-menu experiences:

Enlist your server. Barbara Farfan of Orlando, Fla., often puts her meal choice in the hands of those who know the menu best: the wait staff. “I find that I get much better results by not being so specific with my requests, which can come off as demanding and difficult,” she says. On a recent visit to a Cuban restaurant, for example, the vegetarian asked the server to suggest a meatless dish without cilantro. The result: an off-menu polenta dish. “[It] was delightful, and it was nothing that I would have thought to order by myself,” Farfan says.

Read the secret menu. Some off-menu orders have a cult following, like In-N-Out Burger’s “well done” (extra crispy) fries and Animal Style burger (cooked with mustard and then topped with extra sauce, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and pickle). Review lists of not-so-secret menu items at CouponSherpa.com. Just be aware that because many chain restaurants are franchised and have regional menus, availability isn’t across the board, says Coupon Sherpa founder Luke Knowles.

Disclose medical needs. If you’re ordering off-menu due to allergies, food sensitivities or other medical issues, say so, says Jan Patenaude, the director of medical nutrition for Signet Diagnostic Corporation.  Stress that you love eating out, but there are certain things you can’t have or they’ll make you sick.

Eavesdrop. While waiting in line at one of the New York City outposts of pizzeria Two Boots, Mr. Foodie heard customers ahead of him order a “Super Newman.” (“The Newman” is a white pie topped with sopressata and sweet Italian sausage.) Staffers told him the Super adds capicola ham. It’s a new favorite in the Foodie household.

Become a regular. Ordering off-menu can come across as rude if you haven’t even given the regular menu a chance, says Nicholas Petti, the owner and chef of Mendo Bistro in Fort Bragg, Calif. Develop a relationship with the chef and staff, and they have an idea of what you might like. Establishing regular patronage also shows you’re worth pleasing, from a repeat business standpoint. Frugal Foodie’s mom always orders the same thing at Carrabba’s Italian Grill: Pasta Rambo, with linguine, mushrooms, tomatoes and lobster. Servers are so impressed with her devotion to the occasionally on-menu special that she gets her request every time. 

Be nice. Asking comes across better than demanding. “I always make my requests politely and with a smile,” says Mara Dresner of Centerbrook, Conn. After, she thanks the waiter, owner and other staff profusely.

Mix-n-match. Making an off-menu request goes a lot smoother if you know before asking that most of the ingredients are on hand, says Suzanne Deatherage of Lexington, Kentucky. “I don’t really ever have a problem ordering a ‘custom’ salad as long as I peruse all of the salads and what they offer and request items on my ‘custom’ one that they have on one salad or another,” she says.

Don’t rule out coupons. As with any other meal out, check for available coupons and discount gift certificates before you leave home, Knowles says. Sure, there’s not going to be a discount coupon for the “Rodeo Cheeseburger” at Burger King (an off-menu item from years back that’s topped with barbecue sauce and onions), but you can still use generic dollar-off deals.

Take exception. “Assume the menu is giving you the best of the season and the house,” Petti says. Don’t be so quick to order off-menu at restaurants that focus on seasonal fare.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.