Going out to eat is always a treat—especially when landing one of the toughest restaurant reservations to get in America—but, after a while, the routine can get boring: sit down, scan the menu, order and wait for your food. Diners love to be surprised, as evidenced by the ever-increasing popularity of in-the-know speakeasy cocktail bars and pop-up restaurants. Luckily, even established restaurants like to shake things up by offering secret menu items that delight the palate and bring a sense of fun to date night. Whether at the best French restaurants in America or at the best Mexican restaurants in America, eateries all over the country serve off-the-menu dishes that will rock your culinary world—all you have to do is ask.
Top secret menu items across America
Open on historic Bourbon Street since 1905, this iconic French Quarter restaurant is well known for its renditions of classic Creole fare such as shrimp etouffee and andouille sausage gumbo, served in the restaurant’s stately dining room. But chef Michael Sichel knows how to let loose, too, plating a more casual, but just as excellent, fried chicken. Brined bird that’s dredged in seasoned flour and then fried, the fowl is never listed on the menu but is always available to in-the-know NOLA diners. $24Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Steve F.
This homey Houston gastropub knows its way around a fryer, serving up exemplary Southern-fried chicken that its customers clamor for. In-the-know diners, though, bling out on a crispy-fried dish that’s far less ordinary than fowl: Max’s off-the-menu chicken-fried lobster tail. A full tail scooped out of its shell, sliced into nuggets and dipped in a light batter, it’s served with the bright red shell as a garnish, over mashed potatoes, collard greens and an indulgent slice of Texas toast. $55
Uttering the name “Jitlada” produces a visceral reaction in most Angelenos; namely, grabbing their throats as they breathe mock fire. The Thai restaurant on Sunset is known for its extremely spicy dishes, but an off-menu item, the Jazz burger, is on the tamer side. Created by owner Jazz Singnasong, the dish features two beef patties caramelized with garlic and palm sugar; topped with onions, mustard, herbs and tomatoes; and wrapped up in a swath of lettuce. $17.95
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman
When popular burger joint Pincho Factory first opened in South Miami, the owners added the Foreman to the chalkboard specials: a classic Pincho burger (lettuce, tomato, secret sauce) between two grilled cheese sandwiches. The decadent creation was quickly retired and never advertised again, but regulars with an extraordinary appetite know to ask for it by name. $9.99
This beachy, Brazilian-inflected restaurant located in Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood plates Latin fare such as chimichurri-basted hanger steak and coconutty seafood stew. Traditionalists can, of course, dig into La Sirena’s excellent version of feijoada—Brazil’s national dish, it’s a rich, meat-studded black bean stew served with rice and collard greens—but a less conventional way to sample these flavors is the restaurant’s “secret” dish of feijoada fries. Loaded with black beans, melted provolone, pickled chiles and a fried egg, they’re an indulgent, nacho-esque snack that goes down easy alongside an icy caipirinha. $13
This old-school Italian joint on the Upper East Side isn't just a place to see and be seen by the Manhattan elite. Elio Guaitolini has been serving consistently spectacular traditional dishes for years, but the welcome surprise is that some of the most exciting fare isn't even listed on the menu. The tender veal parmigiana at Elio's is sliced ultra-thin and served in a delectable red sauce. (Of note: the off menu chicken parm is a crowd pleaser as well.) $48Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Meghan A
Boxing Room might be located in Hayes Valley, but its heart is pure Louisiana. With Saints fan Justin Simoneaux at its helm, the restaurant’s menu features Creole and Cajun favorites like crawfish etouffee and summer succotash. There’s a traditional po’ boy, of course, but many diners opt for the off-menu version: stuffed with thick-cut, cheddar-draped fries and smothered in a rich bacon-and-giblet gravy. $14Photograph: Haley Branigin
Chef Michael Solomonov’s phenomenally successful modern Israeli restaurant Zahav has been a favorite in Society Hill since it opened its doors in 2008. Serving soulful, rigorously authentic versions of beloved Middle Eastern dishes such as silky hummus and beef kibbe, Zahav’s off-menu special of foie gras shishlik, or skewer, has also garnered its fair share of clued-in fans. Grilled over live coals, the succulent goose liver is served tucked into a fresh, wood fire oven-baked laffa, or fluffy pita, then drizzled with carob molasses and sprinkled with chopped pistachios and black salt. $21Photograph: CookNSolo
This South Austin favorite is beloved for its inventive and satisfying Tex-Mex tacos with cheeky names such as the Trailer Park (fried chicken and green chiles) and the Dirty Sanchez (scrambled eggs with a friend poblano chile). Appropriate to its uber-cool Austin surroundings, the taco joint also offers an off-menu favorite called The Hipster, featuring panko-crusted fried tuna nestled into a flour tortilla and topped with chopped bacon, black bean relish and Cotija cheese. $5.50
This Ballard favorite offers up hearty Mediterranean fare such as housemade pastas, loaded charcuterie boards and grilled seafood. Its roster of excellent pizzas includes a spicy Calabrese pepperoni with chili and a classic red sauce with mozzarella, but it’s the off-menu Fishy Pie that’s often requested by regulars (as well as by chef Jason Stoneburner’s wife Vanessa). A three-pesce punch of mojama, or salt-cured tuna, as well as white anchovies and bottarga (cured fish roe), it’s a pizza that seafood lovers will adore. $18Photograph: Geoffrey Smith
Boston superstar chef Tony Maws is no stranger to secret menu items: at Cambridge favorite Craigie on Main, his grass-fed, short-rib-and-bone-marrow burger is a limited edition stunner that’s made available to only 18 customers per dinner service. Its counterpoint across town at Somerville spot Kirkland Tap & Trotter is the similarly over-the-top Kirkland Dog, a pork shoulder and beef chuck sausage nestled into a house-baked pretzel bun and topped with piccalilli and spicy yellow mustard. Served all night on “Hot Dog Mondays,” it’s also available sporadically throughout the week—if you know enough to ask. $16Photograph: Michael Piazza
This laid-back New American charmer plates hearty, crowd-pleasing fare like rabbit rillettes and sausage cavatelli, and pours excellent cocktails such as the tropical, rum-heavy Jungle Bird. Its grass-fed burger is right there on the menu, but it’s the Populist’s secret Bacon & Egg burger that cued-in diners go for. Set atop a toasted brioche bun, the local beef patty is loaded up with fresno chile aioli, melty alpha Tolman cheese, pickled onions, an umami-rich bacon and onion jam and is crowned with a yolky 63-degree egg. $16
Fans of chef Fabio Trabocchi’s stylish trattoria Casa Luca are probably familiar with his Vergara meatballs, made of beef, veal and pork and accented with grated grana Padano and pecorino cheeses. But it’s a well-kept secret that those same crowd-pleasing meatballs are available by request only at Fiola, Trabocchi’s more upscale spot in the Penn Quarter. Served six to a bowl in a rich tomato ragu and topped with a sunny-side up egg, they’re a rustic classic that even upscale diners will love. $9Photograph: Abby Greenawalt