When Restaurants Refuse Substitutions

Dear Helena,
I went to this new gourmet burger place where they have a bunch of different burgers on their menu. The one I asked for came with goat cheese and roasted red pepper relish. I hate goat cheese so I asked them to leave it off. They refused! WTF! How hard is it for them to leave an ingredient out? If anything, I am saving them effort and money. What is up with this insane policy, and don't you think it is rude and arrogant? How can they be so rigid? What if I were allergic to goat cheese? Surely they have to make some exceptions.
—Got My Goat

Dear Got My Goat,
When we eat out, the default expectation is that the restaurant will make minor changes to a dish, whether that is substituting salad for fries or serving the dressing on the side. But some restaurants refuse to do so. In New York, for example, the Spotted Pig has a no-substitutions policy, and is well known for refusing to serve its burger with any cheese other than Roquefort. You can ask them to leave the cheese off, however. Not so at Gjelina in Los Angeles, where the kitchen will not even omit ingredients. The menu states: "Changes & modifications politely declined." No exceptions are made, even for heavily pregnant celebrities, as Victoria Beckham recently discovered. Could she have the smoked trout salad with the dressing and most of the other ingredients on the side? No.

It may seem as if such restaurants are just being sadistic, but there are good reasons for refusing to tailor an order to the customer's specs. One is quality control. Changes could result in a bland or oversalted dish. Enrico Bortoluzzi, of the LA-based Terroni, says he refuses to serve Parmesan with the clam pasta. "It already has dried fish eggs and is very salty. Adding cheese will make it uneatable." The fear is that the diner could go home dissatisfied or, worse yet, dash off a derogatory tweet.

But diners nowadays are growing more accepting of these no-changes policies, says Helen Johannesen, director of operations at Animal in Los Angeles. Animal will not alter any dish in any way, even if you have a nut allergy and you merely want to have the restaurant's hamachi tostada without the peanut garnish. "It used to be a lot more of an issue," Johannesen says. "People couldn't understand why we couldn't do something on the side, and demanded the chef come out and explain." These days, it's rare for someone to flounce out upon being told he can't have his salad without feta—as has happened in the past. The change may be due to the restaurant's fame: Diners feel more awed by the experience than they would at their local neighborhood joint, and are therefore more willing to play by the chef's rules.

The restaurant's obligation, however, is to state the policy clearly on the menu. When declining any requests, the server should not make you feel like a child who has done something naughty. He should give a reason, says Michael Schall, general manager and co-owner of Locanda Vini e Olii in Brooklyn. For instance, when a diner asks to mix and match pastas and sauces at Schall's restaurant, servers are trained to explain, "In Italy the shape of the pasta is meant to fit a certain sauce, so they are not interchangeable."

What about exceptions in special cases, such as pregnant women, people with severe allergies, and others on highly restrictive diets? Restaurants should absolutely accommodate these diners. (Within reason, of course—vegetarians shouldn't complain if they go to a steak place and can only have a baked potato.) But they already have a way of doing so. It's called a menu. When refusing to alter a dish to suit your needs, the server should politely suggest an alternative dish off that menu for you. "We train our staff and management to mark what dishes are safe for [people on special diets]," says Animal's Johannesen. "We are not trying to make people feel bad."

You can browse all of Helena's Table Manners columns by topic here. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.