Dishin' That: Ordering sideways: Meet some of the crew

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Even though menu selection is at your own discretion, isn’t it sticker-shocking when dining a la carte?

Not sure? Try doing it with someone who takes the art of the Early Bird Special to a master’s level. Someone who perceives little glass dishes of Grapenut pudding or red Jell-O as an entitled choice, but passes. Someone who prefers freshly ground coffee in a bone china cup and saucer, yet believes it should flow bottomlessly for under two dollars. Someone who has embraced all things Florida for almost 60 years, but still dresses for dinner as if heading to the White Barn Inn.

Someone like my mother, The Betty.

At eightysomething, The Betty keeps abreast of news, politics and social trends, but is an enigma for sure. She isn’t petty and always tips, but regardless of the service, tips with a 15 percent mentality. Among the ranks of pain-in-the-tush people who believe separate checks should be a given (long before POS systems existed), the concept of a la carte infuriates her.

“Why do they nickel and dime?” she asked during one high-season evening at a Ft. Lauderdale intracoastal hot spot. “Why don’t they just price it appropriately and put a roasted potato on the side? Or maybe a little rice. Honestly, it takes nerve not to include a small salad with an overpriced rack of lamb dinner.”

Shifting the conversation to the nuances of the rosemary-to-garlic ratio on her entree, I tried to remember the last time she compromised her perfect-size-6 figure with anything except dark chocolate.

My BFF takes an opposite stance, but agrees the tab can build quickly. “I like to pick a few sides and share them, but it ends up being expensive,” she said. Next to my youngest daughter, Carlykardashian (CK), now a college sophomore on the South Shore of Boston, my BFF is my favorite dining cohort.

Like an old married couple, I know what she’ll order simply by the kind of day she had and if scallops are on special. Unlike CK, my BFF is forgiving of hot food that isn’t hot, overambitious gastric foams that don’t make sense, and garnished plates with more garnish than substance. A mother of four who has learned to streamline things as a matter of survival, she pegged my issue with a la carte perfectly.

“The biggest problem in ordering a la carte with you is, you never know what you want,” she stated. “You look at the menu, decide, and then change your mind three times. But that gives me time for an extra beer, so who cares?”

Ordering a la carte suits me when I want to sample different things, and I will order two or three items as a meal. Otherwise, I let the chef determine what’s on my plate. Health restrictions and Lima beans aside, I do not support requesting substitutions when ordering entrees with predetermined sides.

Not surprisingly, The Betty disagrees.

Peas and Q’s

This, from a woman to her husband, both behind me in line at TD Bank in Northgate last week:

Q — “I wasn’t buying mussels today because sometimes I get them for 99 cents a pound. Wasn’t it crazy to see them for $12 at dinner last night?” Although not directed to me, the question about why restaurants charge what they do is one that lands in my email often.

A — Restaurants charge what they do based on factors many people are unaware of. As is the case with some small plates, the dish may be deceivingly labor-intensive. Others may be enhanced with costly ingredients.

Were the mussels in question served in a delicate saffron broth? A one-ounce tin of Spanish saffron by Princesa de Minaya, D.O. La Mancha, retails for $274.95. Just a pinch warrants a $12 price tag.

Pricing is also determined by accessibility, vendor spikes, perceived market value and how quickly a restaurant wants to move something. (The overall restaurant cost formula is a discussion for another day.) The same item may cost more in August, when fish From Away are biting, and local diners should beware.

Bottom line, if an item seems too expensive to you, then don’t order it. Or, as my fellow TD Bank customers did, prepare it at home. You won’t have to pay for professional expertise and service, but you will have to do the dishes.

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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 nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.

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