The Skepcook: Regarding “No Substitutions”

December 19, 2011

(From time to time the Skepcook will critically address dietary matters—whether his role is chef, restaurant critic, culinary creator, or other persona.)

The "no-substitution" policy of some restaurants is not a customer-friendly way to help one address his or her dietary concerns. Of course, sometimes substitutions cannot reasonably be made, but where they can be, restaurateurs should be encouraged to adopt a more flexible policy.

I, for example—in order to reduce carbs and fat—often seek to substitute sliced tomatoes for home fries or hash brown potatoes at breakfast. I have so often been accommodated in this regard at restaurants—including chains like Denny's and Cracker Barrel—that I have come to all but expect the courtesy. After all, the menus of many restaurants (like those just mentioned) are now offering more healthy choices in entrees, sides, and even desserts. That practice should be encouraged.

Yet on September 11, 2011, when I visited a restaurant a short drive from my home—Tom's Restaurant in Amherst, New York—I was told that while they could hold the potatoes, they would have to charge me extra for the tomatoes. Now, I did not mind the additional cost so much as the principle involved. That was especially so after I gently protested that nearly every restaurant of my acquaintance in the area was happy to make the requested substitution, but this server was adamant. I therefore elected to simply pay for my coffee and try elsewhere.

The nearest place proved to be Alice's Kitchen, where I ordered the equivalent breakfast. Not only was it about a dollar cheaper, but the server cheerfully agreed to the substitution, and—when my meal was served—I found the tomato slices attractively nestled on a bed of green leaf lettuce! Even the restaurant's spaciousness, décor, and overall ambience were superior, and I was served my own pot of coffee.

I'm not boycotting Tom's, but Alice's is more likely to get my business in the future—unless things change. I encourage readers to follow suit and let restaurateurs know you expect them to do their best to reasonably accommodate your dietary wishes.