Dishin’ That: Don’t tame that impulse; feed it something different

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Impulse weekend dining (as in: “Hey! I’m dying for the honey walnut shrimp at Empire Chinese Kitchen on Congress Street”), especially during days of unseasonably warm weather, has become a bad idea.

Forget the targeted destination of your craving. Unless you’re willing to roam the streets going from spot to spot, or make “hit redial” phone calls to check the status of various host lists, be prepared to be hungry longer, and probably chagrined about where you land.

It’s no longer just a last-minute whim to let marinated chicken remain roosting, rather than roasting. The decision to eat before, or after, a 7:10 pm Friday night movie will be made for you. And don’t think about texting friends to join you when you’re almost to town. There won’t always be room for them, much less you.

Obviously, reservations are the smart idea when you’re planning a night out, and phoning in advance to get your name on a list is helpful, too. But, the reality is, despite the increasing number of restaurants (think rabbits, people), you can’t always get what you want, when or where you want it.

Personally, I am grateful for an almost paranormal gift of scoring choice parking spots and newly vacant bar stools, but that wasn’t the the case for the thirtysomething couple standing to my left this past week.

“We just wanted a break from the kids for a few hours,” the woman said. “We were torn between two places we haven’t been to in ages, and neither of them are fancy or expensive. When we couldn’t get into the fun place on Washington Avenue, we headed over to a pub we used to hang out at when we were dating. All I wanted was a burger, but you couldn’t move in there.”

Nodding with sympathy, I asked how they ended up standing next to me.

“This place has been on our radar,” she answered. “We wouldn’t have made a reservation anyway, but who cares because they only take them for four people, or more. We’re going to give it five more minutes before we stop for take out.”

A hospitality server-sister gave me her take.

“There’s a flip side to the local ‘walk in and feed me,’ entitled way of thinking. We still have leaf-peepers, and I understand hotels are close to capacity. It happens every year, no matter what the weather is. People think once kids go back to school, the restaurants are slower. With a shoulder season like this one, that just isn’t the case.”

From a hospitality perspective, this is a good problem, but there’s great empathy around flavor cravings. I won’t drone on about eating early or late, or on an off-peak, mid-week night. That’s not impulse.

I say make a last-minute plan and head out with a sense of adventure. A random chicken tikka masala dish certainly isn’t honey walnut shrimp, but it just may become your next craving.

Peas & Qs

Resurfacing like a bad entree special no one orders, the bring-your-own-cake debate is back.

Here’s the deal. Even if you’ve done it in the past, never assume it’s OK to bring in a cake or dessert (yes, even gluten-free) to a restaurant. Always ask the senior most management person well in advance, and get clarification. After getting the OK, find out if a service fee or per-person plate charge will be assessed.If so, how much? If you agree to it, don’t complain when the check arrives.

Pastry chefs and bakers work hard. Dessert is an integral part of most dining experiences, with house favorites and seasonal selections well thought out. It’s insulting on many levels when someone brings in a supermarket cake, or even a high-end bakery product. Why not just bring your own glazed Brussels sprouts?

As far as “saving money with a large group not ordering separate desserts,” don’t get me started. Desserts are a justifiable and respectable add-on item for servers and the house. In fact, many enlightened people ask to see the dessert list first and plan the rest of their meal around house-made sorbets or mile-high cheesecake.

Solution? Ask the manager to source the kind of cake or dessert you’re hoping to bring. If you want the convenience and service of remaining in the restaurant (versus the mess and disruption of having people in your home after a relaxing meal) this could be the ticket.

Lastly, are you asking waitstaff to cut, plate and serve the dessert you brought in? For safety reasons, that’s the best way, so on top of the house-imposed service or plate charge (which will go to the house), tip accordingly.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.