Filling special requests

Call it the case of the missing crabcakes.

A woman dining in a Cheesecake Factory in Baltimore asked to have her crabcakes broiled instead of fried. No problem, said the waiter.

Ah, but what problems awaited her. The crabcakes showed up fried. The woman said she'd eat them as is, given that her date's meal was sitting on the table. Give us two minutes, said the waiter, and we'll bring them back the way you ordered them.

Two minutes turned to 20. The date finished his meal. The manager showed up to apologize, and offered glasses of wine on the house. The wine came out, was finished, and still, no crabcakes. Having logged an hour and 15 minutes in Cheesecake, the couple asked to have the dish to-go. The manager popped up again.

The cakes eventually arrived, and when the bill came, it only seemed fitting that the woman (who left the place every bit as fried as the original crabcakes), was charged for one of the "comp" wines. ("Unfortunately, we had an off-moment," said a Cheesecake spokesperson. "No excuse—that request should've been handled better.")

That america is increasingly obese is news to no one, and to what degree restaurants are responsible is an ongoing debate. The industry has responded, in part by assuring the public that it's a partner, not an obstacle, in their health quest. "Don't be afraid to ask for special low-calorie or low-fat preparation of a menu item," says the National Restaurant Association's "Tips for Eating Smart," on its web site. "The restaurant industry is one of hospitality and customer choice. We aim to please."

Sounded good to us. So we sent 10 scouts to various full-service restaurants with one simple instruction: ask that a menu item listed as fried or pan-seared, be broiled, steamed, or prepared in some other more health-minded manner.

The results? The majority encountered serious difficulties with their request, and one even got laughed at. In some cases, the server seemed unwilling, or the kitchen unable, to accommodate the request. In others, a staffer simply flubbed the order. Straying from the exact letter of the menu proved troublesome, it appears, as any improvisation on the part of the guest seemed to throw the staff a giant curveball.

At Legal Sea Foods, an upscale chain that has been celebrated for its healthful menu choices, it was an operational issue that prevented our Boston scout from getting what she truly wanted. Asking to have the fried haddock broiled instead, the scout was directed towards a haddock dish on the "wood-grilled" section of the menu. "She was sure they wouldn't broil it, and seemed a little flustered when I asked her two times," said the scout. (A Legal spokesperson said the server was correct: "We don't have broilers."

At New York homestyle restaurant Chat 'n' Chew, a request to have a fried cajun fish po' boy prepared non-fried also got a thumbs-down from the server—though her verdict proved erroneous.

"She said she 'highly doubted' they could do that, and then there was a 10-second pause during which she seemed like she wanted me to say, 'OK, just fry it,'" reported the scout. "She eventually said she could check with the chef, and again seemed to wish I'd tell her not to worry about it." (The server did check with the chef—who said sautéing the fish wasn't a problem.)

Service was more helpful elsewhere, though the results didn't always please the scouts. After checking with the kitchen, the server at Outback said neither the coconut shrimp appetizer nor the crabcake sandwich the scout inquired about could be prepared any way but fried—despite another shrimp app having "grilled" in its name. At American-style Jake's Grill in Portland, OR (owned by McCormick & Schmick's), the scout made it abundantly clear that he wanted a fish entree that wasn't breaded or fried. The server recommended the Ling Cod—and then brought it out breaded and fried.

At least they weren't laughed at, as was the case at upscale New York restaurant Isabella's, a scout reported. "The server seemed like he thought asking to have fried calamari prepared another way was a silly request," said the scout. "He chuckled and said, 'They don't do that.' " A spokesperson for parent B.R. Guest chose not to comment.

Results were mixed at Olive Garden, where our scout was pleased to learn that the fried calamari and chicken parmigiana could be prepared in non-breaded, non-fried ways. Having the fried zucchini prepared any other way, however, was simply not possible (it was pre-breaded, she was told).

That's not to say other restaurants weren't completely accommodating to the requests. A scout at family-dining chain Marie Callender's in northern California was happy to get the chicken strips in his barbecue sampler switched for grilled chicken, no questions asked, as well as salad or soup instead of fries. Same goes for the fried shrimp at T.G.I. Friday's. "Whatever I asked for, they did," said the scout.

Hooters jumped through hoops as well. Asked to have a fried buffalo chicken sandwich grilled instead, the Hooters Girl was "extremely responsive," suggesting grilled chicken with the buffalo flavoring added on. When the cook brought out the chicken with the sauce on the side, the server "raced over and took it upon herself to pour it on," the scout reported. "She was hell-bent on getting me what I wanted."


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