6 Side Dishes To Never Order at a Restaurant, According to Chefs
After an eternity of gazing at various tasty selections on the menu, you've finally chosen your main dish. You confidently tell the server you're going for that Chilean sea bass. She gushes about your selection, making you feel like you made the absolute best decision. Then she asks, "What sides would you like with your entree?"
Wait, what? You weren't expecting that! You frantically flip through the menu, wondering why your dish didn't already come with sides. As you face the dilemma of what's worth ordering and what would pair well with your entree, there are several expert tips to keep in mind. For example, chefs recommend betting on fresh, seasonal ingredients, and steering clear of things you could easily make at home. Here are some usual misses to avoid in the side dish category.
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Some restaurants may offer complimentary bread with your meal, while others (more and more these days) may charge for their bread or bread-related sides (cheesy bread, garlic bread, etc.). But think twice before you indulge.
First of all, bread is filling. You should save room in your belly for tasty and unique appetizers and your main dish. Eating bread before or during your meal should be avoided for other reasons, too, according to Jesus Alvarado, the executive chef of Aspen-based restaurant Duemani.
"I never eat [bread] while dining, as this item is often free or very cheap, so many restaurants tend not to store it correctly," he said. "Additionally, guests can be given bread from the night before if the restaurant was slow."
The only exception is if the restaurant has a notable bread program or makes its bread in-house.
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While these little green spears may look fancy, asparagus can easily be overcooked or turn out stringy. Even when done right, Sarah Gunderson, chef and instructor of the Culinary Arts program at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, says she would avoid it, especially off-season. Instead, she prefers something more creative, like seasonal vegetables.
"Chefs are celebrating seasonal vegetables; they are more than just a common side of asparagus at a steakhouse. Thought and development go into creating side dishes that showcase the vegetables of the region and season. I honestly look for and want to order those at the restaurants where I dine," she says.
According to John Simmons, chef-owner of Firefly Tapas Kitchen + Bar in Las Vegas, loaded fries are "bad for the heart, body, mind, and soul."
"Why overshadow your—hopefully—delicious and nutritious main dish with a pound of fried food drenched in cheese, bacon, sour cream, chili?" he says.
Simmons strongly believes that french fries are simple and perfect on their own, so why muck it up with all the extra calories, saturated fat, and salt? If you want something healthier, he suggests checking out the more artfully designed vegetable-based alternatives you can't readily recreate at home.
"How about some pan-roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta and balsamic? Garlicky spinach, anyone? Yes, please! What about roasted red potatoes with aioli and spicy tomato sauce, a.k.a. patatas bravas?"
Mac and cheese
It's a time-tested comfort food of choice for sure. And it might be hard to pass on all that creamy, cheesy pasta goodness. But celebrity chef Kai Chase says she never orders mac and cheese when dining out.
"It's a shame too because it's my favorite when it's done right and it's homemade—with crispy edges, several ooey-gooey melted cheeses, and a parmesan bread crumb buttered topping. That's the ticket!" Chase says. However, "macaroni and cheese at restaurants, even from soul food restaurants, tend to overcook the noodles, and they typically never have enough seasoning."
If you're craving something with cheese, she suggests opting for a veggie side dish like broccoli and cheese. Or, if you need something salty with a little crisp, opt for Brussels sprouts.
"On top of being a relatively healthier option, most restaurants these days have mastered flavoring [Brussels sprouts] with an acidic sauce or vinaigrette."
Sean Ferraro, chef-owner of Madison Avenue Pizza in Dunedin, Fla., said he avoids mashed potatoes as a side because they are rarely made in-house unless you are dining at a nice restaurant. Jessica Randhawa, the food blogger behind The Forked Spoon, avoids ordering this side because she lumps it into the category of foods you could easily make at home.
"Going out to eat at a restaurant should be about trying new and unique recipes, not a recipe that can be easily made well at home," she says.
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Soup of the day
Many restaurants offer soup or salad as a side dish. However, unless you're at a specialized soup restaurant or a high-end restaurant known for its homemade soups, you'll probably want to skip it.
"Many restaurants use stale, less-than-fresh ingredients in soups to use up whatever is near the end of its shelf life," says Chef Susan Irby. "Even if you ask if the soup was made fresh in-house, you may not get a clear, correct answer. Also, if the soup of the day is the same as the day before, that is a clear indication it is not super fresh."
A version of this story was originally published on October 29, 2022. It has been updated to include new information.