Everyone has left a restaurant and lamented the dish that got away. You wanted to order it, but in this day of shared-small-plates-that-everyone-must-share, you just couldn’t rally the table to add yet one more dish to the mix (or the bill). But whether you’re out with picky eaters, health nuts, penny-pinchers, or work colleagues, you can always avoid that Sliding Doors moment of wondering what could have been. How? Treat the ordering process for what it really is: a cut-throat negotiation between dining companions where the losers are the people who don’t get everything they want. You want to be a winner. We consulted an advertising executive, a behavioral psychologist, and a negotiation professor for their advice on how to make this happen — so you can make sure you never again miss out on an order of crispy pig ears or spit-roasted rabbit.
1. Be the first to suggest something.
One of the most powerful negotiation tools is also one of the easiest. Speak up right when you sit down, and the conversation will get anchored to what you say first.
“When you strike early, you establish a mental marker,” says Mick McCabe, Leo Burnett’s chief strategy officer. “You want to be the first person to make the suggestion so that you’re planting the seed. The standard for negotiations is the place where you begin is the closest to where you”ll end.”
Peruse the menu online beforehand so that you’re on top of your game. You’ll seem excited about the meal, which makes people happy — and more willing to trust your opinion.
2. Offer some ridiculous options.
“It can pay off to make a more outrageous request first, knowing that the person will probably reject it,” says Dr. Simon Rego, a cognitive behavioral psychologist. “It might be that you over-exaggerate the number of items you both should order. But then when you come back with a compromise, like decreasing the number of dishes to the two or three that you really had in mind, your dining partner is more likely to say yes. This is the Door in the Face concept of social psychology.”
“Another version of Door in the Face is ask for something that you know the other person definitely isn’t interested in ordering,” continues Rego. “If you know the person hates seafood, ask for that — and when you follow it up with another suggestion, it’s harder for your companion to say no.”
If you’re out with a known health nut (the most difficult companion), start by suggesting a fried food, even if you don’t want it. Follow up your request with a seemingly lighter pasta option, which is actually what you’d been eyeing all along.
3. Cite expert opinions.
You have full permission to employ the Grub Street name here.
“Say that you read about a dish in a magazine or on a food blog, and that it’s a signature item,” McCabe offers. “It’s powerful to use an endorsement of another source that’s not yourself because it speaks of an un-bias. You become an independent third party, and more of a credible witness in getting people to do what you want. Your motivation is much more hidden and your intention seems pure.”
So if you want the ginger-stout cake at the Marrow, but your friends say they’re too full for dessert, make a point to sympathize with them, but then point out that Adam Platt called it “the perfect way to end your dinner.”
4. Neg the other options on the table.
You’ve got to be a little aggressive to get what you want, and sometimes, negative. Manipulation isn’t for softies.
“If someone says, ‘Oh, this sounds good’ right off the bat, invalidate that as an option,” says McCabe. “Talk about one of the ingredients not being in-season, or say someone you knew went there and ordered it, and they thought it wasn’t good.”
The whole point here is to be convincing. You don’t want to lie, but nobody’s going to question it if you say that your food-obsessed co-worker went to the same restaurant last week and thought the roast chicken was dry.
5. Tailor your tactics to your partners’ tastes.
It’s important to phrase your suggestions correctly. Instead of simply stating what you think everyone should order, present the idea of why you think everyone at the table will love something.
“Negotiations go more smoothly if you talk less about the specific dishes and more about people’s interests,” says Steven Blader, who teaches negotiation courses at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Do they love spicy food? Try to figure out what it is that’s underlying their preferences so you don’t get a ‘no’ right away. It’s a collaborative approach.”
If Sally’s scared of eating frog’s legs, say they taste like calamari and are actually a lean protein. If Sue’s a sugar fiend, emphasize the sweet undertones of a dish. If your friends fall victim to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), claim that the item is only available for a limited time.
6. Build momentum.
Once you start getting people to agree with you, you have to be careful not to relinquish your power. Keep suggesting items.
“It helps to ask for a simple request that you know people are almost guaranteed to say yes to,” says McCabe. “Once you’ve got a yes, you can escalate up to the request you want. It builds momentum when someone agrees with you; they’re more likely to comply with another request. You could start by ordering a drink for the two of you to try. Once the person says yes to that, you can continue onto the appetizers and entrees.”
Let’s get a bottle of great wine (yes!). Let’s share the kale salad (always a yes!). Let’s split the mushroom and bone marrow starters (um, sure!). That’s how it’s done.
7. Leverage things that aren’t important to you.
Strike a deal that if you get to pick the starters, someone else can choose elements of the meal you (secretly) couldn’t care less about. Act like it’s a big deal that you’re letting someone else pick the wine or the dessert, and focus on the aspects of the meal that you actually want to control.
“Maybe you don’t care about what you order for dessert,” says Blader. “Use that as a bargaining tool; say you’ll let the other people pick it. Whenever you can expand the range of items that are being discussed, that’s good for a negotiation. There are more things you’re negotiating over, so you can be soft on the items you don’t care about anyways. And everyone can walk away happy.”
By the time you get to dessert, everyone will do the socially required, “I’m too full; I shouldn’t indulge” spiel anyway.
8. Never be afraid to guilt-trip people.
Nobody likes being called a picky eater, even if it’s true.
“If you’re negotiating with someone and they’re being obstinate, label the process,” says Blader. “Telling someone that they aren’t being flexible usually makes them more agreeable. It’s a good tactic if you have no other out. Probably best to not use this one on a date, though.”
Think of it this way: You may not get back to a hot new restaurant for a while, if ever, so you’ve got to do what’s necessary to taste everything you want while you’re there. The worst that happens is that you end up eating all of it and offer to pay more at the end of the meal. But if you order an extra dish and it’s delicious, nobody’s going to complain.