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Tonight's Special

I Ate Oklahoma is brought to you in part by:

There aren’t a lot of downsides to this job. Indigestion, occasionally. Acid reflux. Massive, morbid obesity.

But those are more a product of my lack of self control than the job itself. If I had to point to one thing in particular that is difficult, it’s sticking to the menu.

See, it’s no fun to read a review of a restaurant and there’s some dish that sounds amazing, so you go to the restaurant and when you get there...you can’t have it. That might be the meanest thing I can think of.

Which is why, for the most part, I don’t get the special. What’s the point of writing up a dish you don’t get to try for yourself, right?

“Are we supposed to feel bad for you? You literally eat everything all the time and you don’t get this one thing. So what?”

I mean...good point. No, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. At least not about that. I mean, if you want to pity me, I have got some stories. Woooooo boy.

No, the point is, I want you to try the special. Get it. GET IT.

Why do restaurants have specials?

Well, at Stella, they don’t have specials.

“We have ‘additions,’” said executive chef Melissa Aust. “Everything on the menu is special.”

With a full menu of dishes that changes seasonally, additions are a way to test new menu items on the people who make all the decisions: the customers.

Stella executive chef Melissa Aust

“We keep a log here of the numbers sold and when we’re planning the next menu, we go back to the list and see what people liked,” she said.

Aust laughs at the idea that additions are how the restaurant gets rid of expiring ingredients.

“My walk-in is about the size of a closet,” she said. “We don’t have the space for things to go bad.”

Which isn’t to say additions aren’t about timeliness. When local farmers drop in with great stuff, they want to share it. It won’t stay at peak freshness for long. Maybe the restaurant gets a good deal on a certain ingredient, like whole branzini, that wouldn’t sustain a clientele but might appeal to a select audience.

Picasso Cafe executive chef Ryan Parrott said people who really want to eat local should choose the special.

“If there’s something I get at a farmers’ market or a farmer brings by 10 pounds of something special, it’s obviously not enough to go on the menu full time,” he said. “But you can feature it for a night or a week.”

Nine times out of ten, the special is the best thing on the menu, he said.

“If you ask the chef what to get, he’ll point you to the special,” Parrott said. “If it sounds good, get it, because it probably won’t be there the next time you come in.”

Aust said Stella has plenty of customers who come in just for the additions. It’s not just a chance to taste what’s new and what’s fresh — it’s also a chance for the chefs to show off their creativity.

After cooking the same dishes night after night, chefs get bored. An addition spices things up and adds a challenge.

What are your favorite restaurants for specials? Is there someplace you go just to try what the chef has cooked up that night or week?

About the Author

Founder and Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, Greg Elwell has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for more than a decade. Where a normal person orders one meal, this guy gets three. He is almost certainly going to die young and those who love him most are fairly ambivalent about it. You can email Greg at greg@iateoklahoma.com.