It's not hard to find a chef that dislikes traditional menus: “They're boring,” Ferran Adrià tells Grub Street. Eleven Madison Park's Daniel Humm agrees: “They make the meal too much of a transaction — not something you would do among friends.” In this golden age of eating, high-quality food choices are more varied than ever before, high-end restaurants are democratized so all are welcome, and going out to a nice meal is a relatively affordable reality. Menus have changed, too, but not necessarily for the better. Today's menu formats have many problems, and it's time to rethink them.
Some backstory: Menus weren't always part of the meal. In eighteenth-century France, at the first commercial restaurants, dinner was simply served at the appointed time. “You couldn’t choose what you wanted to eat, when you wanted to eat it, or who you wanted to eat it with,” says Paul Freeman, historian at Yale. Eventually, meals evolved from being a collection of platters, all laid down at once and refilled as they emptied, into a series of courses. Menus were printed to alert diners of what was to come.
After the rise of the deep freezer centuries later, an invention that chefs could use to preserve ingredients from around the world, menus expanded to bewildering proportions, especially in America. This celebration of abundance and variety arguably hit its peak with the Cheesecake Factory, where the menu book features more than 200 choices.
In today's fine-dining world, menus are full of esoteric ingredients, micro-categories, and provenances. In short, it's time to step back and ask what we want from our menus. Here's why:
Problem No. 1: Austere menus offer too little info to be helpful.
As a response to the overbloated menus of yore, and to help maintain some surprise for diners about what creations will appear in front of them, many chefs and owners have taken to simply listing a dish's main ingredients, with no explanation of how they're cooked or how they interact. Take these five other real menu descriptions, from some of the country's most-talked-about new restaurants (words are capitalized as they originally appeared):
• “Flavors of Bouillabaisse”: Amadai, Mussel, Orange Confit (The Elm, Brooklyn)
• Watermelon, Burnett, Dandelion, Curds & Whey (Husk, Nashville)
• Pok Pok Pig Tails (Our Best Effort): leaf lettuce, radish and carrot pickles, herbs (Mission Chinese Food, New York)
• Gary Carpenter's pigeon, celery root, pear, cabbage (Alma, Los Angeles)
• Pike, egg yolk, yarrow (Aska, Brooklyn)
The issue here is that, instead of creating anticipation for diners, these descriptions are almost willfully obtuse: Who is Gary Carpenter, and why should we care about his pigeons? What does yarrow even taste like? Wait, no, more pressing: What is yarrow?
If a diner wants to know the answers, these are the kinds of questions they're going to have to discuss with their server, which defeats the purpose of having a printed piece of paper in the first place.
Menus shouldn't need explanation. Menus should BE the explanation. That's the point of writing things down. I know, I sound 400 yrs old.— Pete Wells (@pete_wells) September 16, 2013
Problem No. 2: ... And yet current menus still contain tons of useless information.
Even though many menus don't offer information about a restaurant's dishes, plenty of places are happy to use the space to let you know the chef's cookbook is for sale, or to list all of the farms and purveyors that the kitchen buys its ingredients from (and the artisan whose handmade plates they come on). The backside of the menu at ABC Kitchen, for example, names no fewer than 58 of the restaurant's suppliers and even gives a shout-out to “the indigenous Mapuche people of Patagonia” for making their breadbaskets. All that credit is great, but if you have all this extra space, why not use it to let diners know how the Skuna Bay salmon is actually cooked?
Problem No. 3: Modernist cooking doesn't translate well.
"Chefs are terrible with words — there is just no good way to describe what you want to express on a menu," says Matthew Lightner, executive chef of Atera. And it's true that restaurant food is far more intricate than it once was, which creates plenty of translation problems.
Thirty years ago, if a chef wanted to explain that he had braised beef cheeks or lamb chops on the menu, the menu would simply list "braised beef cheeks" or "grilled lamb chops," possibly with the addition of something similarly easy to grasp, such as whipped potatoes and sautéed carrots. Now dishes that simple don't fly at most high-end restaurants. How, for example, would a chef like Lightner properly, and succinctly, convey that one of his dishes is a razor clam fascimile, with the flesh of the clam arriving in a crispy, edible baguette "shell," painted with squid ink for a maximum trompe l'oeil effect? (Lightner has an out since Atera doesn't offer traditional menus.)
Problem No. 4: Menus aren't often about customer choice; they're about driving profit.
At many restaurants — especially chain restaurants — menus are the product of careful engineering, steering diners to buy dishes that yield higher profits for restaurants.
As New York Magazine revealed back in 2009, decisions regarding typography and layout are made to ensure high-profit items get prime real estate on the menu, even if they aren't the best things to actually order.
Problem No. 5: Menus are conversation killers.
Once the menu lands at your table, there are two courses of action to pursue: You and your company stop talking to one another in order to silently look over the menu. Or you and your company continue talking until the server returns at some point and asks you if you've had a chance to look over the menu, at which point you confess that you have not and that you still need a few more minutes. In either case, the conversation is killed, and all attention gets focused on the task at hand: Should we try the Pok Pok pig tails or Gary Carpenter's pigeon?
So, what's to be done about this? Some of the problems above have simple, direct fixes, but this group of ideas should serve to improve all menus:
Change No. 1: Keep the menu focused.
“The big word now on the Web is curate,” says Mitchell Davis, a cookbook author and James Beard Foundation executive. So the best chefs don't just create whatever food their customers want; they instead offer customers the chance to eat the best food they have. Davis says this leads to a power struggle between diners and chefs, but in the digital age this approach makes sense. With so much information available to diners before they ever step into a restaurant, their real choice is made when they decide where to go.
Not only does the approach eliminate the possibility of dud dishes, placed on the menu only to please choosy customers, but it also makes it easier for customers to choose what they want: “What we’ve found is that after seven choices folks just tune out,” says Gregg Rapp, who works as a menu engineer. “You should have no more than five appetizers, entrées, or desserts. Anything else is overkill.”
Change No. 2: Ditch all the farmer and purveyor nonsense.
If you really want diners to know which farm you buy your beets from, put it on your website. Customers that really care about such things will find the info for themselves. Or ask.
Change No. 3: Be clear, not stoic.
Servers have become adept at anticipating questions from diners regarding menus: "The chef suggests ordering about three per person" is a standard small-plates-restaurant instruction. But if the staff knows diners will be confused, why not just print a similar instruction on the menu?
It's also time for chefs to rethink all of the little micro-categories that are popping up on their menus: Sections such as "snacks," "for the table," and "dishes for two" only serve to confuse diners. The traditional app-entrée construction is largely a thing of the past, but why not a single inventory of dishes, listed in increasing order of size and heft? (Bonus idea: The menu could even include a sentence that lets diners know this is how the menu is organized, so servers don't need to explain.)
Change No. 4: Keep the menus somewhere handy.
Of the many contributions the Momofuku empire has made to the restaurant world, simply placing a neatly stacked pile of menus on the bar and tables is among the most helpful. Diners can just reach for them when they're ready.
Change No. 5: Or just lose the actual menu completely.
I asked Daniel Burns about his decision to offer a no-choice prix fixe at his restaurant Luksus in Greepoint. He was blunt: "I want you to eat what I want you to eat.”
"We’re really in a transition from the age of ‘fine dining’ to an age that’s about creating a different dining experience,” says Dan Barber, who offers menus at the Blue Hill in New York City but not at the more high-end Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
The no-menu approach isn't realistic for restaurants that don't strive to be culinary destinations, but in the hands of a skilled chef a menu-free meal can be something special. Mitchell Davis, the James Beard Foundation executive, says he prefers sitting down in a dining room where no menu is offered: “I feel a sense of relief, a sense of release.”