Discover more from Very Serious
It's Fine to Order the Same Dish as Your Spouse
And other advice that might help you stress out less in restaurants
Speaking of the slow news year, I was back on CNN last night and one of the topics we discussed was what Joe and Jill Biden ate for dinner on February 18. The president and his wife visited The Red Hen in Bloomingdale, about two miles north of the Capitol, where they both ordered the same entrée: the restaurant’s signature rigatoni with fennel sausage ragù and tomato.
This fact allegedly has the internet burning up with shock and dismay about the idea that two halves of a married couple might order the same dish for dinner. Washingtonian magazine covered the controversy on February 21, and a week later it made its way to The Washington Post, which is how I ended up talking about the matter on national television.
The Post reported:
For many, it’s verboten to choose the same entree as one’s dining partner. Hannah Madden, a 24-year-old Washington resident who does fundraising for a political nonprofit, is firmly in this camp. “Getting the same thing as the person you’re eating dinner with is silly,” she says. “The whole point of going out to eat is getting to try as many things as possible.”
For her and others, the discussion that ensued after the Bidens made news for their matching order revealed just how deeply people hold their beliefs about how couples (and friends, even) should handle restaurant orders. “At first, I thought, it’s funny that everyone is in such a twist about this,” Madden said. “And then I realized, ‘Oh wait, I’m in a twist about this!’”
Sorry, this is deranged. The whole point of going to a restaurant is not “getting to try as many things as possible.” It’s to eat delicious things, socialize, and enjoy yourself. If the rigatoni is going to make you happy, and it’s also going to make your spouse happy, why shouldn’t you both have the rigatoni? There is not going to be an exam where you are quizzed about dishes you failed to sample.
That said, I’m not entirely surprised by the dumb sentiments catalogued in this article because one thing I’ve observed throughout my years of dining out with other people is that lots of people are really bad at ordering in restaurants. They stress too much, take too long, and still often don’t make the right decision. So, in hopes that I can help people improve their restaurant experiences, I am offering my step-by-step guide to ordering quickly, choosing well, and avoiding FOMO when you dine out:
Go to a good restaurant. Choosing the restaurant is the most important step in the ordering process, and it’s often overlooked. If the restaurant is good, then whatever you order will probably be good, and the stakes around what you choose to order are not so high.
Consider the restaurant’s specialty. Ordering is not just about which foods sound good in the abstract — it is important to consider the context. Are there cues about what’s going to be especially good here? If it’s a seafood restaurant, order seafood. If you’re at the Red Hen, where the specialty is apparently the rigatoni, give serious consideration to ordering the rigatoni.
Pick up the menu, look for something that sounds delightful, and select it. Do not fret about whether you have chosen the most optimal dish that will give you the greatest pleasure. If it’s so hard to pick, then presumably both options sound really good to you, and it doesn’t really matter that much which way you go.1
Try to be ready to order by the time your server asks if you know what you want. The cognitive burden required to pick a dish that sounds good is much lighter than the cognitive burden of a high-stakes evaluation of the very best item on the menu. So, once you’ve adopted my method, it shouldn’t take you that long to pick. You can probably even consider the menu while listening fairly closely to a conversation — that’s what I do.
Put the whole order in at once. Incomplete orders are one of my big restaurant pet peeves. I hate them for the same reason most restaurants do — getting the order in all at once helps them pace your order correctly and avoid a long gap between service of appetizers and mains. It also saves the wait staff time. So when dining with a group, I do my best to enforce all-at-once ordering. It’s really in everybody’s best interest.
Don’t concern yourself with whether someone is planning to order what you plan to order. Why would it matter? Ordering matching meals is not like showing up to a party in matching dresses — your meal is something for you to enjoy, not a statement of your individuality for the world to see.
Share bites of dishes if you have a good reason to do so. Is your dish quite unusual, or surprisingly delicious? Has someone else ordered something you really want to try? Then go ahead, pass around some food, ideally by using your bread plate. But you’re not a restaurant critic and you don’t need a comprehensive survey of everything that’s been put on the table. You’ve had lasagna before; if it doesn’t appear to be mind-blowing, you don’t need to seek out a bite.
If the menu is built around shared plates, someone needs to be in charge. You need to figure out how many dishes are needed, and then come up with a list of choices that includes especially enticing items while also having an appropriate balance of food and flavor, and such a plan doesn’t just emerge from an anarchic conversation around a dining table. If you’re dining with me, don’t worry; I’ll take good consideration of your input while I manage the ordering process. But if I’m not around, consider whether you’re the person at the table who’s best equipped to lead.2
No FOMO. If you followed the rules, you probably picked something that made you happy. And if you didn’t, hey, you’ll have another chance to get it right the next time you go out.
One thing that makes me happy about the Bidens’ trip to The Red Hen is that our president — a low-neuroticism man in a high-neuroticism party — appears to already understand these principles. Certainly, he knows that if he wants the rigatoni, he should go ahead and order it. It’s just one more thing that Joe gets that so many of the professional politicos in Washington do not.
Very Serious is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I assume the same fear of ordering the wrong dish that leads to slow ordering is also behind many diners’ insistence that dining companions should not order the same dish. If everyone orders differently, and then tries some of everyone else’s food, that’s like an insurance policy — you’re guaranteed at least some of the best dish that was ordered. But if you’re the sort of person who needs insurance against a risk as small as ordering the wrong entrée, you are neurotic.
If you’re at a business meal, the person who’s paying needs to either run this process or designate someone else to do so.