Is It Ever OK to Bring Food to a Restaurant?

Yahoo FoodAugust 28, 2014

GIF courtesy New Line Cinema

As more chefs jump on the “no substitutions, no modifications" bandwagon at a furious pace, some picky patrons – no longer able get that pasta dish with extra cherry tomatoes minus the pancetta – are taking matters into their own hands. They enter said chefs’ restaurants toting their favorite condiments, specially-made dressings, even full-on vegan meals. And that’s leaving many others wondering if they can pull it off, too.

Is this behavior ever OK? Does a severe allergy give you a pass? A baby in your party? We ran these scenarios by chefs, restaurant owners, and etiquette experts to find out. Here’s what they find acceptable and those that are definite faux pas.   

SCENARIO 1: You have a severe allergy, so you bring your own nut-free salad dressing/gluten-free roll/dairy-free cheese. 

Eric Greenspan, chef/owner of The Roof on Wilshire and Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese in Los Angeles: “I actually like those people who bring in lists. If someone says, ‘Here’s a list of everything I can’t eat,’ awesome. That saves a lot of time and effort. I would much rather them say, ‘Hey man, handcraft me something,’ then bring in their own s***.”

Elaine Swann, lifestyle and etiquette expert and author of “Let Crazy Be Crazy: “If you have actual strict dietary concerns, especially if they’re medically induced, and you choose to bring your own item, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. At least let the server know so they’re aware of it. Explain to your fellow guests what it is, but don’t make a big discussion about it. We don’t need to know the gory details.”

Ron Eyester, executive chef/owner of Atlanta’s Rosebud, The Family Dog, and Timone’s: “If your diet is that strict, you might need to eat at home. When someone looks me in the face and tells me they’re going to die if they eat something, it takes all I can not to burst out laughing. It’s not that I don’t believe you, but what are you doing here, then? I’m flattered that you’re willing to put your life in my hands, but do you really think you should be dining out at a busy restaurant on a Friday night?”

VERDICT: Let the restaurant know what you’re looking for ahead of time and you might not need to bring anything with you after all. 

SCENARIO 2: Your boss has set up a working dinner at a restaurant where you, a vegan, know you won’t have many options. But it’s your boss; it’s a non-negotiable. So you show up with your own meal.

Graham Elliot, chef/owner of Graham Elliot’s Bistro in Chicago: “It would be no different than going to an art gallery with your own set of paints and brushes, or to a concert and telling the band what songs you want them to play.” 

Eyester: “I think there have to be certain parameters. We once had someone bring almost their entire meal with them in a Tupperware, instructed us on how to reheat it and plate it, and was then put off by the suggestion that we would actually charge them something. We are about hospitality and we take that very seriously, but this is a business.”

Julie Wakefield, president/founder of JW Etiquette: “Most restaurants are willing to prepare special plates for people who have special dietary considerations, especially if they know in advance of your arrival. Try to call the restaurant the day before your event or as early as possible to discuss your dietary needs.”

Joshua Hebert, chef/owner of Posh in Scottsdale, Arizona: “When you walk into my restaurant, I’m hoping, during the process of making a reservation, we have gathered enough information from you – any food allergies or general dislikes – to make a nice dinner for you. Need vegan mayo or special sauce to make your night? Tell the restaurant a day ahead of time and leave the food props at home.” 

VERDICT: Most chefs would prefer you don’t do this. Give them a shot at making you something suitable, instead. If you must bring a meal, be prepared to pay something. 

SCENARIO 3: You love your ghost pepper hot sauce/Himalayan rock salt/homegrown basil and bring it everywhere.

Greenspan: "As long as it doesn’t cut into my bottom line and they’re not being completely obnoxious, then bring whatever you have to to have a good experience."

Swann: “If you’re at the point where you have a favorite ketchup or seasoning or whatever that doesn’t have to do with your specific diet, my advice is just to leave it at home. The point of going out to eat is to enjoy the total experience. What’s happening now is people are trying to take the restaurant experience and make it so personalized that they’re forgetting … to respect the chef who has put this menu together.”

VERDICT: Ideally, don’t bring it, but if you must, be polite about it. 

SCENARIO 4: A bowl’s worth of puffed rice cereal and a box of cheddar crackers are the only things that will prevent your two-year-old from having a meltdown.

Elliot: “In my opinion, a baby is the only excuse for bringing outside food into a restaurant.”

Greenspan: “C’mon, it’s kids. You gotta’ keep your kids happy while you enjoy my dining room, so go for it.  And I was like that before I had a kid. Now I’m even more sympathetic.”

Eyester: “If you’re talking about a bottle for a kid or cereal, that’s acceptable. What’s not acceptable is when you allow your child to dump an entire box of Cheerios all over my dining room and make no effort to acknowledge that he’s done it or help clean it up. That’s bad taste.”

VERDICT: No problem, just keep mess to a minimum. 

SCENARIO 5: You bought a large coffee prior to brunch and you still have half left, so you decide to finish it at the dining table.

Wakefield: “Finish your coffee before entering the restaurant.”

Greenspan: “I see that all the time and that bothers me. Really, dude? You can’t drink your coffee before you get here? If you need caffeine so bad that you can’t wait to get to brunch to order it, then finish your cup before you walk in the door. I think that’s fair.”

Eyester: “It drives me crazy when people walk in to brunch with one of those 32-ounce Starbucks coffees. We have coffee, too. I’ve also gotten the question, ‘Can you heat this up for me?’ The coffee that you brought? Yeah, I’d be happy to do that. I was hoping you’d ask me that.”

VERDICT: If you’re looking for a way to seriously tick off any chef, this is it.