Frank Sinatra was that guy. James Bond is that guy: The guy who can walk into a place and get the thing that nobody else gets… unless you’re the guy who knows. Truth is, lots of restaurants have the ability to whip up something special that’s not on the menu and not going to be on the menu. But if they’d do it for just anybody, it’d be on the menu, right? Some off-menu items are for customers they already know and value. (Sinatra’s was pasta with no garlic, because even Sinatra couldn’t get action with bad breath.) Some are for the kind of customer who comes in late, when the staff is already thinking about what they’re going to have when they get off, and manages to bond with them as fellow nightowls. And some are just for… that guy, because you know him when you see him. We poked around and talked to some guys and came up with this list of 19 off-menu items which you can have… if you know about them and know how to ask. They tend to be manly dishes, a bit old-school, because that’s what that guy is— he exists above trends and fashion. So enter the world of that guy and see what he eats in Chicago in our slideshow below, and then check out our surveys at the other Grub Street cities as well. Because that guy gets around, too.
Where to Get It: Urban Union
Sometimes a single guest can inspire an off-menu item. That’s the case with one good customer at Urban Union, who talked chef Michael Shrader into whipping up a classic bespoke dish, steak tartare, every time he comes in. Shrader’s version starts with a filet and includes pickled onion, parsley, capers and a raw farm egg.
Where to Get It: Yusho
Yusho’s menu of Asian small bites might seem out there enough for some, but chef Matthias Merges says there are always a few even more exotic ideas kicking around the kitchen, which they’ll offer to good customers or those looking for a more unusual experience— like this dish of aged strip steak wrapped in nori, served with barbecued sweetbreads, ume boshi, shisito pepper and a strawberry relish.
Where to Get It: GT Fish & Oyster
Regulars at this downtown business dinner spot know to ask chef Giuseppe Tentori what fish he’s got that isn’t on the menu. Something that looked good that day is waiting to be prepared whole, like this striped bass which he figures will work for a party of 20.
Where to Get It: Tavernita
Spaniards are really just starting to think about dinner at 10 p.m., and that’s when Tavernita offers one of Valencia’s classic dishes, paella, to the first ten guests who want it— and know to ask for it.
Photo: Drew Templeton/DrewTempleton.com
Where to Get It: Stout Barrel House and Galley
Stout’s chef, Chris Curren, quietly brought over this luxe lobster pizza from his previous post in the kitchen at the late Blue 13. This crusty, smoky, savory 12-inch pie is topped with Maine lobster, roasted garlic puree, roasted cipollini onions, and three-month aged manchego cheese.
Where to Get It: Naha
Little-known beyond a small group of frequent lunchtime diners, Naha’s off-menu Greek-inspired burger is laden with big, rich flavors— thanks to a thick wood-grilled beef patty and toppings like kalamata olives, feta crumbles, oven-roasted tomatoes, sea salt, roasted mushrooms, and a drizzle of balsamic syrup.
Where to Get It: Michael Jordan’s Steak House
Find yourself in the bar on a weeknight after 10 p.m. and you can ask for Chef James O’Donnell’s Killer B— a bacon and blue cheese-topped burger on the restaurant’s signature garlic bread, drizzled with blue cheese sauce and served with fries and a bourbon milkshake.
Where to Get It: South Water Kitchen
This cheese-stuffed burger was initially the request of South Water Kitchen manager Charlotte Mahn, a native of the Juicy Lucy’s hometown of Minneapolis. Chef Roger Waysok slips three slices of American cheese between two 4-ounce locally raised beef patties, followed by some expert crimping. The grilled result—combined with beer-battered onion rings, sautéed crimini mushrooms, and a pretzel bun—is an oozing, rabbi-upsetting delight.
Where to Get It: M Burger
Off-menu items have been a part of M Burger’s M.O. since it opened, and some, like the Hurt Burger topped with jalapeños, have proven popular enough to earn a spot on the regular menu. The idea for the Dr. Betty, though, came from customers who ordered the tomato-and-avocado veggie burger, the Nurse Betty— but wanted a beef patty on it anyway. (There’s also a Bacon Betty.) It goes great with off-menu cheese fries topped with cheese and jalapeños, and the shake flavor of the month (currently key lime pie).
Where to Get It: Perennial Virant
Whole animal cooking is about using up everything, but some cuts simply never come in the quantity that they can be put on the menu. Paul Virant’s crew butchers a pig every few days, and regulars who know to ask if anything special has been saved are liable to get this dish of sauteed heart with a spicy Southern twist from cheesy grits, greens, and carrots with a dash of jalapeño.
Where to Get It: The Southern
Although Chef Cary Taylor’s fried okra requires too much time-consuming hand work to keep on the regular dinner menu, regulars know that the crispy, tangy nuggets of goodness are still secretly available. The kitchen pickles whole okra, splits them, and dredges the spears in a mix of white corn meal, all-purpose flour, salt, pepper, and buttermilk.
Where to Get It: Libertad (Skokie)
Sometimes a chef has to look at a dish and ask, why can’t I quit you? This mussels dish, a classic saffron broth brightened up with Latin spicing and coconut milk, was on the menu when Libertad opened, then got retired. But people kept asking for it— and chef Armando Gonzalez winds up making it about 40 times a week anyway.
Where to Get It: Mercadito
Mercadito makes fresh fruit purees for its cocktails. But you don’t have to be drinking drinking to enjoy them— if you ask they’ll make you a refresco, a fruit soda, in flavors like mango, cucumber or guava, topped off with a rim seasoning like pico piquín or cumin.
Photo: Drew Templeton/Grind Magazine All Rights Reserved
Where to Get It: Allium
When Allium bar manager Steve Minor wants to do something special for a special guest of The Four Seasons, he whips out the Smoke— a dark, leathery drink of Laphraoig or other peaty whisky, Carpano Antico sweet vermouth, Aperol and The Bitter Truth’s allspice-flavored Pimento Dram. Then he brings it to the table in a vessel filled with actual smoke for a dramatic presentation. The beautifully balanced, manly Smoke is about to hit the regular menu, but for the version with the special effects, you’ll just have to be the right guest in the right place at the right time.
Where to Get It: La Sirena Clandestina
When John Manion’s La Sirena Clandestina opens in the next couple of weeks, it will be his take on Latin and South American cuisine, including beverage director Justin Anderson’s versions of classic Latin drinks like pisco sours and caipirinhas. But not that American cliché, the margarita. Oh, no. As Manion told us, “Justin makes a damn fine margarita. And all the bartenders will be able to make a damn fine margarita, but it will not be on the menu. There’s no margarita and no tacos, because that’s not what we’re doing.” So no margarita. After all, it’s not like there’s something about being secret or hidden in the name of the restaurant, right?
Where to Get It: Due Lire
This caffeinated, hot-and-cold off-menu dessert features an airy yet crunchy semifreddo made with a mixture of well-whipped meringue and crushed pistacchio brittle. As with traditional affogato, which typically includes vanilla gelato, a hot shot of Italian espresso is poured over the chilled semifreddo at the table.
Where to Get It: Sun Wah Bar-B-Q
The most impenetrable source of items not on the printed menu has always been Chinatown, where there’s a whole alternate universe of dishes on the other side of a language barrier, not even mentioned to non-Chinese speakers. Sometimes, as at Sun Wah on the north side, the hand-written signs on the wall include English descriptions— but mostly all you can do is look at what Asian customers are having, and point and hope they’ll actually bring it to you, too.
Where to Get It: Spoon Thai
Authentic Thai food used to be as hard to get as Chinese, with Thai customers routinely ordering things bearing only a vague resemblance to the sugary dishes on the English menu. Over time local food geeks worked on getting Thai restaurants to share translated lists of the Thai offerings, and now at a few spots like Spoon, Aroy and TAC Quick, dishes like this brightly comfy combination of lime juice, fried rice and a Thai pressed ham product are available on authentic Thai menus handed out alongside the list of more conventional Ameri-Thai dishes.
Where to Get It: The Office
With The Office, Grant Achatz took the idea of a secret menu one step further with an entire secret restaurant deep in the building that’s home to Next and The Aviary. The dark, intimate bar serves up old school cocktails and equally lush indulgences like oysters in the half shell, foie gras terrine, and creamed morels— if you can wrangle an invitation to check it out.