What to Do If You See a Menu Item You Can't Pronounce — But You Really Want to Order It

Even if you order the "stripe steak," you'll still get what you're craving.

<p>miodrag ignjatovic / Getty Images</p>

miodrag ignjatovic / Getty Images

Have you ever been in a restaurant and seen something on the menu that is tempting to your senses, but you don’t know how to pronounce it? What do you do? You can jump in feet first and give it a try, consonants and vowels be damned or you could point at the menu and hope your server can see what it is you’re asking for. Or, you can fess up and admit you don’t know how to say it. All three options will provide the same result, but only one of them is correct: be honest and tell your server you don’t know how to pronounce it.

There’s nothing wrong with not knowing how to pronounce a word. As of May 2024, the Oxford English Dictionary contains over 600,000 word forms, including 171,476 words that are in current use. Nobody can be expected to know how to say all of those. Throw in words from other languages when looking at restaurant menus and the likelihood of a mispronunciation is pretty high.

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If you do choose to go for it and end up saying it wrong, your server may or may not correct you. I once had someone order the New York stripe steak and rather than risk embarrassing them and/or affecting my tip, I just asked them how they liked their stripe steak cooked. This particular customer was rather rude to me, so I passive-aggressively repeated their mistake more than once. “And how is your stripe steak?” “Are you finished with your stripe steak?” “I hope you enjoyed your stripe steak.”

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It’s too risky to correct a customer. If I had a dollar for every time someone pronounced the pollo burrito like “polo,” or the chicken mole enchiladas like the sauce is made from a marsupial instead of 30-plus ingredients ranging from dried chiles to anise and chocolate, I’d be a rich man.

As a server, I’ve been on the mispronunciation end of the stick too. The first time I ever served a clafoutis, I had no idea how to say it. The chef told me what the special dessert was and he described it as a classic warm cranberry dessert that is similar to a custard-like cake. He rattled off the name of it, but by the time I got to my first table my brain called it a “flatooey” and I described it as a gelatinous cake, so I was really killing it.

One man questioned the name of the dessert and I doubled down on it. “I know, wild name for a cake, right?” Later, when I saw it written down, I still didn’t know it was French and spent the remainder of my shift calling it a “claw-footy.” It sounded like I was trying to sell something that Granny Clampett cooked down by the cement pond.

If we don’t know how to pronounce something, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. A lot of times, the reason we don’t know how something is pronounced is because we’ve only ever read it and never heard it said out loud. It doesn’t mean we don’t know what it is. Most of us know how to say “hors d’oeuvres,” but can you imagine trying to say that the first time if you’d never heard it before?

Related: Upgrade Store-Bought Hors D’oeuvres Like a Pro

If it’s a word on the menu that’s in French or Italian, the server will always be happy to share with you the correct pronunciation. My local Italian restaurant knows my pronunciation is awful and will always repeat my order two or three times until I get it right, hoping I will learn. Or they at least pretend I’m not mangling their native tongue when I order the malloreddus.

The next time you see something on the menu you don’t know how to pronounce, face it. Ask how it’s said and carry on. No one is going to judge you for it. They will only do that if you order the New York stripe steak and you've already been a jerk. And don’t ever ask me how to say "beef Bourguignon." I have no idea.

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