One group of people might tell you that you should ask the server for their recommendations. This can sometimes yield wonderful results as most wait staff sample every dish on the menu. They also have served these dishes countless times to people and know what other diners have favored. However, this can also yield some pretty tragic results. Sometimes, wait staff are told to push certain menu items because the meat is about to turn or the seafood is starting to smell a little fishy. That seafood “special” on Sunday exists because the fish was delivered on Friday and dolling it up as a special and/or covered with sauce is a good way to fool diners into ordering it. Your server may also have a side bet with the other staff as to who can sell the most of a certain item.*
Some of the other methods I’ve heard from other people include ordering what they “know” they’ll like, looking around the room at other diner’s plates, reading reviews online, trusting food critics, or if it’s a first date, ordering the most expensive thing on the menu. While these can yield positive results, there is a simpler philosophy that may make it much easier.
Never – ever – order chicken at a steakhouse. Never order meat at a seafood place, don’t order salad when there are crates of towelettes (wet naps) in the back, and by no means should you order sushi at a French restaurant.
Every restaurant will do one cuisine really well. Nine times out of ten, if you stick with this cuisine, you’ll probably choose something really good. If you order pasta at a pub or diet food at a diner, you may be gravely disappointed with your meal and condemn the restaurant forever. This even applies to restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King. Sure, they have grilled chicken sandwiches and apple slices, but nothing can beat their burgers and fries.
There is one exception to my rule and it shouldn’t need to be stated, but one I feel that I must cover. If the restaurant your eating at has a giant menu encompassing multiple types of cuisine, perhaps from around the world (hint: the menu will have laminated pages and may be bound), you’re on your own. I can only recommend the water. The rest is dealers choice.
*Note: Making wagers on customer orders is a widely held practice in the restaurant business. It’s one of the ways we keep ourselves sane.