How to order like a food critic

Former <i>New York Times</i> Chief Restaurant Critic Frank Bruni shares his top dining-out tips.

Gourmet meals are one of life's supreme pleasures, but nothing's more frustrating than scoring a top table only to order wrong and squander the experience — especially when the majority of your days are spent eating and exercising diligently. We caught up with Frank Bruni, former New York Times chief restaurant critic, to get his knowledge from five years of professional eating, and quizzed him for advice on dining out like a pro.

1. When should you go?
Since low energy can kill a restaurant experience, Bruni is a big fan of trying out new places on Thursday nights. "You get a little of the weekend excitement but you don’t necessarily get the full-throttle craziness of the weekends, logjams at the bar and frazzled servers," he says.

It’s also always a good idea to give a new restaurant some breathing room. The usual wisdom is three months, but Bruni finds that two months can sometimes be better. "They know critics are coming in, and they’re still excited and attentive and have kind of maximum euphoria," he says.

2. To Yelp or not to Yelp?
Sure, you can wing it with a new restaurant and order with your gut when you arrive, but Bruni says there’s no reason to abstain from reading about the experiences of others before you arrive. He does caution that user-generated reviews like Yelp are often biased, but if you "triangulate against independent critical opinion" (i.e., the pros) or just look for repeated patterns over many reviews (like one dish mentioned several times), you can mostly correct for any bias.

3. Do only amateurs ask waiters for advice?
Since waiters work on tips, Bruni reasons, they’re economically invested in your happiness — or at least, they should be. There's no shame in asking for recommendations, but he suggests assessing your waiter first by starting a dialogue, to "get the gut sense you’re dealing with someone truly involved with the restaurant and on your side."

If the waiter seems knowledgable, Bruni recommends giving a little guidance (i.e., what kinds of flavors you like or are in the mood for) in order to get more personalized recommendations based on your palate and preferences. Otherwise, the rec will usually be "either based on what the majority of people like best or what dish is the [waiter’s] favorite."

4. Should you go for the special?
Specials aren’t always food that the kitchen wants to get rid of — according to Bruni, the quality of the special depends on the quality of the restaurant. "In most upscale restaurants, the special is often something not on the menu because it involves ingredients that may or may not be available any given day, so a special can be reflective of the greenmarket," he says.

Bruni does caution, though, that "in a less nice restaurant, the special can be what they’re trying to move out of the fridge." Consider the seasonality of the special’s ingredients and the overall quality of the restaurant’s cooking before going outside the menu.

5. Antipasti, Primi, Secondi ... how much is too much?
Even if you’re not starving, it can be worth it to go all-out on the occasional four-course splurge. "If you’re in a really good restaurant, order all four courses and don’t finish the ones you’re not hungry for — you’re getting exposed to the most of the chef’s work, and you’re having a wide variety of taste sensations," Bruni says.

Ultimately, eating out should be about more than just filling your belly. "How much you order in a restaurant should be determined by how much of an appetite you have, how much of the chef’s food you want to try and how much you have to spend," he explains. Strike the perfect balance and you can consider yourself successfully wined and dined.

Planning a big feast? Read the latest findings on the eating and exercise equation.