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Don't Eat That! 16 Things You Should Never Order When Dining Out

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

a variety of food dishes set out on a table

a variety of food dishes set out on a table

I never order fish on Monday. The fish markets in New York City are closed on the weekends, so the fish that's served on Monday was left over from Friday.

— Anthony Bourdain, "Kitchen Confidential"

In his first book, a scathing exposé that cracked open the door to all the dirty little secrets of the restaurant industry, Anthony Bourdain warned us to never order the fish on Monday. That makes perfect sense, but there are other potential risks out there that you might not have considered, or even knew could occur. Here’s a look at what to avoid when you dine out.

1. Bread (or Tortilla Chip) Basket

According to author Debra Ginsburg’s book Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress your best bet (if you don’t mind the empty calories) is the freshly-baked mini loaf of bread whisked to your table at an Italian restaurant. If the bread is already sliced or individual rolls, you might want to pass. Ms. Ginsburg (who was a former server) reveals that bread baskets can circulate from table to table.

2. Salsa

While we’re on the topic of tortilla chips, let’s think about their sidekick. OK, you’re going to start hating on me, I can tell. But honestly, how long has that salsa been sitting out? Anything that isn’t properly stored is a bacterial pool party.

buffet items

buffet items

3. Buffet Table

There are several potential problems here. First, how long has that food been sitting under a heat lamp? Was it kept hot enough to prevent bacterial growth, or just warm enough to make the food taste cozy and comforting? Did anyone in front of you sneeze on that pasta? Did little 5-year-old Jimmy (who eats his boogers) stick his fingers in the mashed potatoes while his parents weren’t looking? Did anyone sneeze or cough into their hands and then grab that spoon?

4. Salad Bar

Same story as above, except the food (should be) cold.

thick piece of cooked chicken

thick piece of cooked chicken

5. Chicken

Rare or medium-rare is great in many dishes, but chicken isn’t one of them. When kitchens are slammed (meaning that they are overwhelmed by the number of orders coming in) they can inadvertently send out a piece of chicken that looks lovely on the outside but is still clucking on the inside. Before you take a bite, use your knife and fork to cut into the thickest part of the meat. If it’s pink send it back. Just to be safe, I’d order something else.

bar drink with citrus garnish

bar drink with citrus garnish

6. Citrus Garnish on Your Drink

I am going to apologize in advance. I know that some of you who are reading this are bartenders, or bar backs, or know (and love) someone who is. Nevertheless, bartenders are often not held to the same exacting standards as kitchens. How old are those citrus slices? Have they been refrigerated? Handled with impeccably clean hands (or were those fingers in the cash till just a minute ago)?

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7. Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice

This one kinda goes along with the citrus garnish topic above, but for a different reason. Unlike other beverages, “fresh-squeezed” juices are not pasteurized.

8. Condiments on the Table

Did you know that bottles of catsup are typically not tossed out when they approach empty? They are refilled and shuffled, and goodness only knows how long the contents at the bottom of that bottle have been lingering there. Yes, catsup is acidic and so does not spoil easily, but like everything, even catsup has an end life.

9. Syrup From a Pitcher

This is related to the problem with the condiment bottles. Goodness gracious knows how old that stuff is (and what might have happened to it while it was sitting on the table). Ask for the “to go” packets of syrup instead of the communal pot.

10. Drinks With Milk

A long, long time ago, when I was expecting our second child, we ate at an Italian restaurant chain (I won’t divulge the name but it rhymes with Forgive Pardon). I ordered a glass of milk as my beverage of choice. Ohmygoodness, it was awful! So horribly “off” I’m surprised that it poured rather than plopping into my glass in chunks. We alerted our waiter to the problem, and he promptly replaced it with another glass—which was equally bad. Milk doesn’t get used that much in the bar, so don’t. Just don’t.

Ask what yesterday's soup du jour was before today's special. It may be the case that it's the soup du month.

— Gordon Ramsay, as told to "Town & Country" magazine

11. Hollandaise Sauce

Mr. Bourdain comes to the rescue again, admitting that eggs Benedict is one of the least favorite items on the menu (preparing that sauce is a royal pain in the patootie). Think twice before ordering. It’s basically raw eggs and butter hovering at “warm” but not hot enough to kill anything.

12. Mussels

They are magnificently tasty, but also incredibly fragile. Unless you personally know the chef, skip the mussels. One bad mussel can ruin an entire week, trust me.

bar snack of salted peanuts

bar snack of salted peanuts

13. Peanuts, Popcorn, and Other Bar Snacks

This one doesn’t take too much thought. Popcorn or peanuts in a bowl?

14. Soup if You’re a Vegetarian

Maybe there are no actual pieces of beef, pork, chicken, or seafood floating around in the bowl, but what about the stock?

15. Sprouts

In a past article, I covered the topic of growing your own sprouts. It’s fun, easy, and economical, but you must use safe food-handling practices. The climate that encourages the rapid growth of sprouts from raw seed to food garnish is also the climate that provides the breeding ground for Salmonella, Listeria, and E.coli.

16. Well-Done Steak

You’re probably wondering, “What’s the harm”? Isn’t this safer than a piece of meat that is cooked rare and still has blood running across the plate? Well, truth be told, cooking a piece of beef to “well done” is a great mask for a steak that’s seen better days.

After reading this article...

© 2019 Linda Lum

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