I’ve long enjoyed exploring the foodie corners of social media, scrolling through endless photos and videos of delicious-looking eats. In the process, I’ve come across dishes that I’d never heard of from popular restaurant chains ― so called secret menu items.
Having special beverages or foods that aren’t written on the regular menu is fairly common for fast food chains and even sit-down restaurants these days. Often these secret menu items were created by the powers that be at the eatery or grew out of little “hacks” that were invented by customers or staffers and became widely popular.
“With so many restaurants active on Instagram and influencers utilizing both Instagram and TikTok to expand marketing and outreach, it has become tremendously easier for customers to gain exposure to new restaurants, emerging food trends, and secret menu items that were once unattainable,” Yuliya Buslovich and Nina Hadzibabic, creators of the food Instagram account @bknyeats, told HuffPost in an email.
Even though ordering off the “secret menu” has become much more common in recent years, the idea of doing this myself still feels incredibly awkward and embarrassing. Compounding these feelings are the many online forums and opinion pieces suggesting that it might actually be rude or otherwise ill-advised.
So how can you order a secret menu item without feeling weird about it or being a bad customer? Below, etiquette experts and foodies share their advice.
Consider the context before ordering.
“Not all ‘secret’ menu items are created equal,” said Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and co-host of the “Were You Raised by Wolves?” podcast. “Some aren’t really much of a secret and are pretty common, like In-N-Out’s ‘Animal Style’ burger or Chipotle’s nachos. For these, go for it. But when things get more exotic and it’s a more obscure and time-consuming reconfiguration of existing ingredients, then further discussion is required.”
Take a moment to consider the timing and context. If you’re at a McDonald’s during a slow period of the day with virtually no other customers, then perhaps you can order a Mc10:35 ― a McDouble combined with an Egg McMuffin ― in a way that doesn’t cause notable inconvenience to the staff or other diners.
“But think twice before going through a drive-thru and ordering something that takes 10 minutes to explain and another 10 minutes to make,” Leighton cautioned.
Monica and Bruce Wong, the couple behind the Instagram account @ny.foodie, echoed this advice.
“When ordering this secret menu item, be mindful of the worker making it for you!” they told HuffPost in an email. “They are already busy making normal orders and if this secret menu item requires the worker to add significant steps to a process, it could add significant stress to them and back up other orders.”
Do your research in advance.
Before embarking on your secret menu journey, try to do some advance research.
“Don’t assume every Starbucks barista knows how to make a ‘Purple London Steamer Trunk,’” Leighton said. “If you’re ordering off-menu, you’ll need to know exactly what’s in it and how it’s made.”
Reddit can be a helpful place to find out what exactly is on different chains’ “secret menus” and what these dishes entail. Try to find out if there’s a special way to order the item in question.
“Google ahead of time what is on said secret menu and then reference it,” said Lindsey Metselaar, creator of the Instagram account @dontexpectsalads. “For example, at Hillstone Midtown you say, ‘I’ll have the off-the-menu chicken fingers.’”
If you want to be extra prepared, you could even have an image of the dish or beverage saved in your phone.
“Nowadays with social media, you see these secret menu items every time you open up your feed. They are a lot less ‘secret,’” the Wongs explained. “One of the best ways to ask about them without feeling embarrassed or weird is to show a photo or video of where you saw it first, which could be from your favorite Instagram or TikTok account.”
Just ask, but do it politely.
When it doubt, don’t be afraid to simply inquire about the secret menu or specific secret item. The worst thing that will happen is you won’t be able to order that thing and will just have to get something else instead.
“It is all in how you ask,” said Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “You want to be kind and polite, never entitled. Depending on your personality, you can be deferential or direct. ‘Ah ... yes ... I’ve heard there is a delicious unicorn smoothie ... may I have one?’ Versus ‘I’d like to order the unicorn smoothie, thank you.’”
Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life,” noted that the word “secret” can conjure up negative emotions, so if it makes you feel strange, you can simply refer to things as “off-menu” items.
“You can say something like, ‘Do you still offer the squid pasta and calamari plate’ that is not on your menu?’ or ‘Are there any off-menu specialties you can recommend?’” she suggested.
Gottsman also emphasized using a pleasant and natural tone of voice when asking about off-menu items.
“Rather than feeling like an undercover spy requesting a special dish, treat it as a routine question with the emotion left out of it,” she said. “Special dishes that are not included on the menu are not out of the ordinary and the server will let you know if they are no longer available.”
Be prepared for a no.
“When ordering something custom, it’s polite to first ask whether or not your menu item is even possible today and use a tone that acknowledges that you’re aware you’re making a request for something that is not standard,” Leighton said. “Be prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Smith noted that there’s no harm in asking about a secret menu item so long as you are understanding if they aren’t able to help you with that.
“The venue is never obligated to fulfill an off-menu request so go into the situation with an open mind,” she said. “If your request is denied, have a back-up order at the ready. And, you may ask if there is a different day or time when they would be able to comply.”
If they are able to make that secret menu item for you, remember the transaction doesn’t end there.
“Accept any extra charges on your bill that may result,” Leighton said. “And don’t forget to tip.”