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Impossible to please

Blame it on allergy awareness or the organic food movement, but some restaurateurs worry diners are getting fussier

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / June 1, 2011

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Hilary Missan loves eating out, but if her dining companions — and any waiter who’s ever served her — wonder why, they can hardly be blamed.

“It starts at the beginning of the meal, when they bring ice water, which I hate,’’ says Missan, a casting director at Boston Casting, spinning out a tale of food issues and server interrogations that span all meals, all cuisines, and sometimes become so intense a family member leaves the table.

“I ask the waiter to bring me [room temperature] water, but usually it’s still cold, so I ask for hot water with lemon. At breakfast, I like oatmeal, but I don’t like oatmeal with milk, so I ask what it’s made with. They always say, ‘I don’t know.’ They have to go back to the kitchen and check.’’ Missan, of Brookline, pauses to catch her breath. “I like Caesar salad, but I hate gloppy dressing, so I ask for dressing on the side, and no croutons and no cheese. When we go for Chinese food, I want everything steamed. If there’s a language barrier, my kids say I raise my voice or use aggressive hand movements.’’

A recent Zagat survey named service the top complaint among Boston diners. But some diners are no picnic either, and table-side interrogation is growing, according to local restaurateurs. Blame food allergies, both real and imagined, shows like “Top Chef’’ — and ocean-activist Ted Danson.

“It’s good for you to go to a restaurant and say, ‘I don’t eat farmed salmon. Where did this fish come from?’’ he told the New Yorker recently. Asked if he made such pronouncements at restaurants, Danson says, “I do. It’s very embarrassing.’’

Yes, a paying customer has the right to know whether the base of the soup is cream or whole milk or 2 percent or skim, or if a dish contains gluten or onions or any other legitimate (or imagined) allergens, but pity, if just for a moment, the waiters.

“In the old days, when I was coming up through the ranks, we knew the sauce and the protein,’’ says Garrett Harker, owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar and Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Kenmore Square. “Now you need to know the ingredients of that sauce, when that food walked in the back door, and who made the wine. They want a little story behind it. Is it a multinational corporation, or a seventh-generation winemaker who’s 65 with gnarled hands?’’

“There used to be a little mystery about what happened in fine-dining restaurants,’’ he adds. “Now that there are cameras in there [on reality TV shows], the trials and tribulations are on display for everyone to see. That brings us all down to Earth.’’

Harker, like other restaurateurs interviewed, emphasized that he appreciates customers who are interested in local and organic ingredients. And no one wants to sicken a customer by serving him something he’s allergic to. Since last October, Massachusetts restaurants have been required to display notices asking diners to inform servers about allergies.

In April, David Chang, the New York chef, put “fake allergies’’ (along with “special food requests’’) on his “Top 5 Most Annoying Things Customers Do’’ list for details.com.

The issue comes up locally. “People will say to the server they absolutely can’t have gluten,’’ says Orla LaScola, co-owner of American Seasons on Nantucket. “They will quiz the server on everything that’s in the food. We’ll prepare a gluten-free meal, then we get to dessert and they order a chocolate cake.’’

“There are a lot of people who have a legitimate allergy,’’ she says, “but others feel it’s something that makes them gain weight. People get very anxious about what they are putting in their bodies.’’

That’s Lisa Freudenheim, a legal consultant in Boston. “I am an extremely picky eater when it comes to anything remotely fattening,’’ she says, joking (sort of) that when she eats out, she tries to turn every dish into tofu and steamed vegetables. “This is my one arena for high maintenance. I can be so easygoing — I just got a call from the car dealership saying my car got hit while it was there, and I said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ But God forbid you put crumbs on my haddock. We all pick our battles.’’

The sitcom “Portlandia’’ satirized the situation in an episode called “Ordering the Chicken.’’ The couple’s questions about the chicken — did he have friends? — go so deep they eventually leave (before ordering) to investigate the poultry farm.

In real life, those like Missan’s family who witness interrogations often overtip as a way to apologize. At American Seasons, for example, cringing companions sometimes surreptitiously leave an extra $20.

But Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University, and author of “The ‘I’ Diet,’’ says there’s nothing to be sorry about. “Restaurants are completely out of control. The average portion is two to three times what a person can stand without gaining weight. You are paying for this. If you want a salad instead of potatoes, if you want to tell them to cook your steak without butter, I think you are doing the world a favor.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.

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