Industry Standard: The Invisible Menu Page

A friend of mine recently told me she had to cut short a restaurant visit because her godson couldn’t find anything on the menu that he wanted to order. “Why didn’t you just get him a grilled cheese, or a kid’s pizza or something?” I asked. Her answer? “Those weren’t on the menu.”

All of a sudden, I realized she didn’t know about The Invisible Menu Page. I found myself wondering how many other people are unaware of this glorious restaurant phenomenon.

Folks, unless the words “No Substitutions” are posted prominently on the wall or appear somewhere on the visible pages of the menu, you typically are free to attempt ordering from The Invisible Menu Page. That’s the page you write yourself, according to your particular dietary needs, wants or restrictions.

Did you know that servers have the ability to send brief notes to the kitchen via the restaurant computer in most establishments? Now, sometimes we in the kitchen have to ask for a clarification – the space they have to type in is limited, and the shorthand is often pretty cryptic – but we’ll almost always try to honor the guest’s request (and the truly legendary ticket modifier notes are taped to the kitchen wall as decoration).

“CHZY NOODL”, it’ll say (basically anything that can be passed off to a kid as pasta and cheese). Or “CAESAR SUB BV 86 CHZ ADD TOMATO”, which means romaine lettuce and tomatoes with balsamic vinaigrette and leaving out cheese of any kind (“86” means “none”). The resulting dish is nothing at all like a traditional Caesar salad, but still totally do-able in the grand scheme of things. The rule of thumb is: if the ingredients are in the kitchen, the cooks will probably do their best to accommodate you. Believe it or not, this goes for most national chains (excluding fast food) as well as local independents.

Celebrities, of course, are well versed in the use of The Invisible Menu Page. I love the story of how rapper/actor Ludacris had his tour bus driver pull over in front of a well-known upscale restaurant in downtown Louisville, then sent an assistant in to order fried chicken and collard greens to go for his whole crew (and got it!).

However, as a non-celebrity, you should be prepared to wait a few minutes longer than usual if your request involves anything particularly out of the ordinary. It might also extend your waiting time if the restaurant is especially busy and the kitchen is slammed. When things get crazy behind the kitchen door, everyone goes on autopilot, and a special order might get bumped back a couple spots in line to allow time for a cook to make a special trip to pull ingredients from the walk-in. When in doubt, you can always ask your server if your request is reasonable – he or she might have to check with the kitchen, but a good server will be honest with you about the possibilities!

The writer, a graduate of Sullivan University, has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s and L&N Wine Bar and Bistro. She is now the pastry chef at CafĂ© Lou Lou.