Ask The Salty Waitress: Just How Special Are The House Specials?

Dear Salty, Recently I went on vacation and ate lunch in a restaurant that made extravagant claims on the menu about the famous-ness of its cherry pie. That got me thinking: Is the cherry pie actually famous, or did whoever wrote the menu just decide that it should be and that we would all be fooled? Because it really wasn't that great, at least not as great as the cherry pie served in my favorite diner in northern Michigan, and did not deserve to be famous.


Dear Skeptic,

Well, look at you! You are an absolute genius for figuring out that a menu's claim that a dish is famous or special will make more people want to order it. You have figured how advertising works.

Now I'm going to get a little philosophical here for a second. A house special is as special as the restaurant wants it to be. I think maybe the question you're asking, hon, is how the specials get to be special? And the answer to that depends on a few things.

The overall goal is for a restaurant to stay profitable enough to remain in business so its cooks and charming waitstaff can continue to do what they do best. In order to do that, the restaurant should sell large quantities of the dishes that are most profitable. It's not really tactful to point a giant arrow at the roast chicken to say: "This did not cost us very much but you will pay a lot for it." That would be crude. But what if we said, "This roast chicken is very, very special"? Or, "This roast chicken is prepared the same way the chef's sainted granny prepared hers for 50 years"? It's a way to say, "If you can't make up your mind, try this, and it will make us very happy."

There are, of course, other reasons for making things special, like if restaurant's Mount Everest-sized nachos appeared on some TV show, or if the late, great, dreamy Anthony Bourdain said he liked a place's pastrami. Or maybe a restaurant happens to be in northern Michigan where you can't turn around without being hit over the head with cherries. Cherries are natural resources. And who doesn't like pie? You like pie because it's delicious. My boss likes pie because one pie can serve eight to twelve people. Get the idea?

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