When I dine out with friends, I always seem to be the "loser" in the ordering sweepstakes. Do you have advice on ordering in restaurants?
Over the years I've developed a handful of rules designed to protect myself from the most egregious crimes against food.
A middle-of-the-road restaurant with only a few fish offerings is running a special on Dover sole. Fresh from the English Channel? Not likely. Ditto for items that are suspiciously inexpensive (two lobster tails for $15) or way out of character (blackened catfish at the diner).
The waiter may have exquisite taste and a commitment to helping you have the best meal possible. Or he may be 20 years old and raised on Chicken McNuggets. Instead of asking what he suggests, consider asking what's the most popular item on the menu.
Try to find out where the chef is from. A few years back I was having dinner at a rather tired "Continental" restaurant and I noticed Wiener schnitzel and apple strudel on the menu. I ordered both, had by far the best meal of all my companions and learned that, yes, the chef was German.
Then there are a number of foods that are just difficult to mess up: If a restaurant regularly serves raw clams and oysters, chances are good that they are going to be fresh. Even a mediocre rib steak (or rib-eye steak) is probably going to have good flavor and texture. And it's almost unheard of to get bad ice cream.
Erica Marcus writes for Newsday. E-mail your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send them to Erica Marcus, Food/Part 2, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Road, Melville, NY 11747-4250.