The Ordering Game

"The goal of the game was to order in one go, and so comprehensively that the server would not be forced to ask for even a single clarification."

20070319orderinggame.jpgAbout ten years ago, my brother and I invented the now-infamous Ordering Game.

The Ordering Game, at its inception, was benevolent—a public service to those long-suffering waiters who had had to deal with our parents' incompetent ordering practices for years of Sunday breakfasts. While otherwise normal, considerate, and competent people, my parents cannot order to save their lives. And, maybe because we've both waited tables in our time, Charlie and I find their amateurish restaurant antics cringe-inducing.

My father is fussy—"half a cup of coffee, please, with skim milk; dry toast—and can I get fried tomato instead of bacon?"

Our mother, meanwhile, is a ditherer, who has the annoying habit of not even glancing at her menu until the server appears to take her order. When he does, chaos ensues. "Hmm, what have we here? That looks good ... do you recommend the omelet? Oh, but that's pretty tempting, too ... hmm, let's see ... I just can't decide."

My brother and I are forced to look on in mute anguish and shame.

To compensate, perhaps in a futile attempt to save the family honor, we instinctively tried to keep our own orders efficient—to know what we wanted before the waiter arrived, to plan backups in case our first choice was unavailable.

Gradually, our quest for ordering excellence became competitive. Charlie would stare at me intently as I ordered, looking for a mistake, a wasted moment, a slip. I started to study menus with rapt attention. Observing this, my father wondered aloud why we couldn't apply this efficiency and focus to other spheres of our lives.

We decided to implement parameters. The goal of the game was to order in one go, and so comprehensively that the server would not be forced to ask for even a single clarification. As such, every variable had to be examined, every corner of the menu explored, lest something—a complimentary glass of juice on a pre-set breakfast menu, for instance—go unnoticed.

One receives a point for every variable in the order—complexity is rewarded—and a deduction for every clarification the server requests.

For example: "I'd like two eggs over medium, please; bacon, crisp; home fries; rye toast, buttered; a small grapefruit juice; and a coffee. Thank you."

The above order, while deceptively simple, is rife with pitfalls:

  1. Number of eggs and their manner of preparation
  2. Bacon (and, optionally, the degree of crispness of said bacon)
  3. Type of potato—do not assume! Sometimes there is a choice of French fries or even the option of home fries versus hash browns
  4. Variety of toast, and choice of butter (sometimes they ask)
  5. Type of juice
  6. Size of juice (a common beginner's omission)
  7. Hot drink—sometimes there is a choice of coffee or tea!

Breakfast is a very good opportunity for the game, given the number of factors involved. Once breakfast is mastered, one may move on to other meals, and even other cuisines.

With lunch and dinner, there is more likelihood of a restaurant having run out of dishes, plus the wild card of an appealing special, only revealed at the last minute. For these meals, one needs a cool head and flexibility. Backup choices are mandatory in every category; a true pro will have third choices, too.

Ethnic restaurants present the problem of pronunciation; ordering by a dish's menu "number," while allowed, is regarded as cowardly.

As in any sport, there are factors one can't control: a waiter who's hard of hearing or whose English isn't good? Bad luck. A confusing menu that doesn't list all its sides? Too bad. Them's the breaks. Learn from them and become stronger.

To succeed at the Ordering Game, you have to get in the zone, to a place so calm and assured that your opponent's unblinking scrutiny goes unnoticed. While practice and strategy help, it's a simple fact that some people have a natural talent for the game, while others are destined to founder. My brother and I are particularly well matched; while I have a better eye for a menu's details, I can't match him for cool, or the intimidation of his stare. Indeed, sometimes I start to giggle hysterically, in which case I forfeit a whole round. And make the waiter uncomfortable.

When eating out with friends, Charlie and I developed the disconcerting habit of silently scoring our oblivious dining companions as they ordered. They, in turn, noticed our unusual absorption in diner menus, then strange, rapid-fire ordering. When we let people in on the game, they became nervous and exhilarated. Every meal was suddenly fraught with danger.

"But, when you were a waitress, did bad ordering actually get on your nerves?" one puzzled friend asked.

"No, of course not," I replied. "But I like to think I would have appreciated someone taking it really seriously."

Sometimes, it must be admitted, the efficiency of our ordering took our servers aback. Accustomed to the more relaxed pace of amateurs, they'd balk when faced with such perfectionism. But I've received a barely perceptible nod of approval from the famously cranky staff of a local deli, and even a "Great ordering!" from the crusty old-timer at a venerable Brooklyn steakhouse.

It was a game to rival Neil Strauss's, and just as consuming. After a year or so of the Ordering Game, I realized I was literally unable to order normally. I was appalled one day to realize I was scoring a potential employer at a business lunch. On dates, I'd look up, irritated, if spoken to while studying the menu, stare fixedly at my date while he ordered, and then list my own choices with machine-gun rapidity. Needless to say, if he scored low, a second date was out.

Charlie and I conferred, and, with some regret, decided that for the sake of our social lives, we would reserve the Ordering Game for those occasions on which we ate alone together. We have schooled ourselves to order at a normal pace—even injecting the occasional mistake for recovery purposes. To the casual observer, we're as relaxed as any diner in a restaurant. But every so often we make a date for breakfast at a local coffee shop, one on one. And when the menus go down and the pen comes out, it's go time.

About the author: Sadie Stein lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She has previously written for Serious Eats about those mysterious date-nut bars you see in every deli and convenience store.

Photograph by ja_macd

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