Advice for Eating Out: Don’t Let Fools Run the Table

Food writer Andrew Simmons explains how to keep the most clueless members of a shared dining excursion from making bad decisions for the group, with case studies from three restaurants in LA's Koreatown.

I’m a Category 2 control freak. The product of a family of micromanagers, I was raised with an awareness of what I could become. My journalist mother flayed my fourth-grade book reports for spelling errors. My dad, also a writer, made my brother and me a list of must-watch film classics when we were in elementary school and brought a new tape home most weeks.

I’ve consciously worked to minimize the risks associated with my predisposition. It’s like knowing alcoholism or melanoma runs in the family. Except, instead of getting fanatical about sunscreen, hats, and turtlenecks, I try to avoid social scenarios in which I may be tempted to play puppeteer. But I became a teacher in no small part because I like curating the intellectual diet of students for nine months at a time. And I like writing, another outlet for controlling people, because it allows me to create little universes over which I can be supreme ruler.

When it comes to dining out, I reveal my moderation. For instance, I don’t pre-emptively gather menus before they hit the table and, insisting I know what’s good, order for everyone. I might have suggestions, but I impose them delicately and casually. At a restaurant where sharing is encouraged, even a necessary aspect of the experience, I struggle most to suppress a supervisory tone. I try to smile and look away when the rest of the table decides to order four variations on chicken stir-fry. Or when a solitary vegetarian cheerfully insists on both a portobello melt and quinoa patties “for the table.” Or when, at a Shanghai dumpling house, someone states a little too loudly that she needs hot-and-sour soup, as if it’s some rare gastronomic itch she’s been dying to scratch. I just want to eat the best, most authentic thing the place does—authentic meaning faithful and full-throated, and expressive of the restaurant’s heart, the personality of its cooks and proprietors. I want to be hit with the best shot.

But a lot of diners—ironically—do whatever it takes to keep that from happening. So, to keep these shot blockers from exerting control, I have a simple strategy. I make sure everybody at the table relinquishes control entirely.

I try steering us to a restaurant with an epic menu that is mediocre with the exception of one clearly transcendent dish, adored on every table. For example, it’s possible to order gummy, fluffy dumplings at Feng Mao Mutton Kebab in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, but nobody would. Feng Mao serves grill-it-yourself Beijing barbecue aimed at a Korean clientele, a scene you’re not likely to find many places besides Los Angeles. The banchan are perfunctory and weird, boiled peanuts and a few shrubs of the saltiest broccoli ever steamed. The only thing anyone who comes here orders, besides beer, is the dish identified in the name of the place: mutton cubes smeared with cumin, salt, and chile, little baubles of fat wedged between each piece of meat, skewered and charred over a two-tiered, laptop-sized grill heaped with hissing hardwood. You twist the skewers (but not too much) to get each cooked, and drag the pieces of meat through a gratuitous mound of the same spice mixture they're already coated with before eating. Everyone leaves happy, with numb lips and mouths feeling like a road stripped and repaved.

Then there’s Sun Ha Jang, directly across the street, with its brief barbecue menu focused on duck. There are three kinds: thin disks of unseasoned breast, fatty tangles of boneless leg meat and trimmings, and the latter soaked in crimson chile paste. Ordering is simple: You get them all in quantities appropriate (or excessive) to the number of diners, possibly exempting the option number three, if only because Jonathan Gold was lukewarm on it. At the end, after she enlightens you with an unsolicited lecture about the digestive benefits of duck fat, the server dumps a heap of purple-red rice in the shimmering tide pool of grease left on the shallow, bowl-shaped grill, adds any surviving green onions and kimchi shreds, and produces a glistening, crisp, and irresistible fried rice that is somehow more duck than grain.

Better than herding a group to a place with an overwhelmingly obvious specialty is leading it to one that offers only set meals. Nearby in Koreatown, for instance, seafood dive Jae Bu Do has three menus—A, B, or C. They’re pretty much the same; each gives you too much food. Masochists might consider adding a sidecar of lobster, hagfish, or eel, each nearly as pricey as the cheapest set menu, to supplement the Korean-style sashimi of shrimp and fish scraps with sesame and chile, pan-sized seafood pancake, egg-corn custard ramekin, seafood broth in a campfire foil cup, huge oysters, two kinds of clams, mussels on the half shell, meaty baby octopuses, scallops with gochujang, head-on shrimp, foil-wrapped sweet potato, and pound of really good kimchi. It all comes on a massive platter. The servers pace you pretty well, but you tend the grill yourself with steam billowing around your face, a smoky saline scent burrowing into your hair. You wrangle the hot shells using a thin white glove that not only gives you the appearance of a half-dressed superhero but also, comically, does almost nothing to ward off the inevitable burns, especially after you accidentally submerge it in hot soup and the fabric sears onto your skin.

Eating this way is restrictive in the most liberating sense; the tension that comes from perusing a menu evaporates. There’s no need for negotiation. The control freaks have nothing to control, and those who like to bully (“What, you want that steak medium?”) have no choice but to loosen up. Eating the same thing as everyone else in the restaurant becomes a quiet act of resistance against anyone’s impulse to run the table, to push for dishes or demand a plate unsullied by the forks of others. A meal out settles on the moment, the convivial social occasion that the collective experience of eating underscores, burned fingers, sweaty faces, and all.

Photo credits: Jae Bu Do (top) by Flickr member LWYang; Sun Ha Jang ad by Flickr member Korean Resource Center; both are under Creative Commons

Andrew Simmons is a writer, teacher, and musician living in California. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Gastronomica, and The Believer. He is originally from Kentucky.