Menus are full of coded information. A "seasonal special" that features apricots in October means the restaurant hasn't bothered to change things around since the summer (or even last summer). "Truffle oil" almost always means the chef cares more about the size of the bill than the quality of the ingredients. Any pun on the word appetizer ("Appeteasers," "Hooterstizers") means you need to get out the door as soon as possible.
The hidden codes can take a while to pick up on, but certain red flags are easy to spot. For instance: "No Substitutions."
Gone are the days of the customer always being right. Some restaurants, in fact, take exactly the opposite approach. Chefs think their dishes are so precious and beautiful that they can't bear the thought of a mere diner altering it—even with a sprinkling of salt. To some extent, I understand this. Lots of time, thought, and care go into creating the perfect menu item. That doesn't change the fact that sometimes people just can't eat certain things.
Let's make a distinction, here. There are substitutions because the customer is a picky jerk who hates anchovies, and there are substitutions that stem from personal conviction or health reasons. I don't care about those who think they deserve the first kind. I live in Los Angeles. It's the Land of Ludicrous Ordering. Like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, people want the salad, but they want it with the dressing on the side, the croutons extra-crispy, and can you swap the lettuce for thinly shaved $100 bills? Please? To restaurants that choose to ignore such whims, I say bravo.
My concern is directed at the restaurants that won't on principle make substitutions, even when there's a perfectly good reason to make the change (allergy, religious belief, lachanophobia), and especially when said change is easy to make (e.g., leaving something out). Case in point (and one that Angelenos can all commiserate about): chef Sang Yoon's gastropub, Father's Office. He's probably the most famous no-sub proponent in all of L.A., and his gourmet burger—topped with Maytag blue cheese, Gruyère, arugula, and a caramelized-onion-and-applewood-smoked-bacon compote—is a shining beacon of the genre.
That said, it's ridiculous that Father's Office will not prepare a burger sans any of the ingredients. I recently went there with a friend who keeps somewhat kosher (meat and milk = no problem; pork = problem), and all she wanted was the burger without the bacon compote. An easy request, no doubt, but one the restaurant would not accommodate. She didn't want to swap something else in to make up for the bacon. She didn't want to waste the kitchen's time with some elaborate preparation. She just wanted the burger without the bacon compote. Thanks to their steadfast "No Substitutions or Modifications" policy, they said no.
Father's Office is not alone. In fact, some of the best restaurants in L.A. have these customer-unfriendly policies. Venice mainstay Gjelina made headlines over a year ago for refusing to serve a pregnant Victoria Beckham her smoked trout salad with the dressing on the side. At their restaurants Animal and Son of a Gun, chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo enforce the policy diplomatically ("changes and modifications are politely declined"), but does that make it any less wrong? I don't think so, especially when Shook has been quoted in a Today show blog saying, "Would you ask Picasso to change his painting?"
No, Jon, I wouldn't. Then again, I don't eat paintings.
It's one thing to make sure your restaurant runs smoothly. It's quite another to get fascist on your guests. In my experience, no-substitution policies are a fool-me-once situation. I'll deal with them the first time, but after that I get all Culinary MacGuyver. You don't want to serve ketchup on your burger? No problem, dude. I'll just bring ketchup packets from home. And if I truly can't get what I want at your restaurant, then I'm not going to come in at all. There are too many lovely establishments that are happy to have me, and none of them make me feel like Meg Ryan—except of course at Katz's Deli. I'll have what she's having ... unless you won't let me.