Most people who step into the ’21’ Club order the same thing they’ve had every other time they’ve stepped into the ’21’ Club. The staff may not crack an egg into the steak tartar any more (thanks for nothing, Department of Health!), but there’s a residual stability to the place, even if you’re no longer required to wear a tie to lunch. At ’21’, you don’t sit down and wait to hear the specials—you don’t even need to open the menu.
Head to Tribeca and walk down the stairs into Le Restaurant—a refined, market-driven restaurant tucked beneath All Good Things—and you won’t need to look at a menu either. The staff will present you with a narrow piece of paper listing the courses you’ll be eating that evening, and that’s pretty much that. You just choose your wine, or, more conveniently, order the wine pairing, and avoid making a single decision. The chef doesn’t want to know your preferences; he just wants to know if you have any food allergies.
Break out your TI-83: the tasting menu at Nashville’s Catbird Seat is hand-written on graphing paper. (Photo: Southern Living)
The restaurant menu is a curious document. In a brasserie it can stand for continuity and classicism; if it’s hand-written each day, it signals seasonality and improvisation. Even its size can be symbolic: Ferris Bueller stares at a ludicrously large menu when he crashes a power lunch as Abe Froman “the Sausage King of Chicago.” But more and more menus are becoming open to interpretation.
Let’s be clear that a menu that has to be explained is not a good menu.
In the past, you could rely on clear distinctions between size and order of dishes—you had a starter then a main course, and a dessert if you were feeling indulgent. Now, courses are vague, like the open-ended final scene of a critically-praised HBO drama. In fact, there’s no real hierarchy to meal at all—dishes simply arrive without any sense of pacing or logic.
Let’s be clear that a menu that has to be explained is not a good menu. If it’s not immediately apparent how many dishes you should order then there is a fundamental failure of menu communication. You gaze at a list of dishes and you don’t know what’s expected of you—or, worse still, what you can expect to discover in front of you.
The confusion created by these inscrutable menus has given rise to the now-ubiquitous question, “Have you dined with us before?” If you say “yes” then you sound like a presumptuous bore; if you say “no,” you are immediately infantilized. Suddenly, the waiter is in complete control, tacitly entrusted to steer you, the rudderless diner, through the twists and turns of the document. Eventually, the monologue will get around to the concept you didn’t want hear: small plates.
There’s a comforting familiarity to the appetizer-entree-dessert model of classic restaurants. (Photo: TASCHEN/Menu Design in America)
Yes, the enigmatic small plates which the chef recommends that you share. Somehow, these small plates manage to leave your hunger unfulfilled and your bill mysteriously higher. On so many of today’s mercurial menus, no dish is the size you want it to be, and everything manages to arrive in curious intervals.
A menu is a declaration of intent: It should impart a sense of a chef’s worldview. It should also excite you, make you eager, incite your hunger. But these days, you are handed a menu with a vague sense of unease: Are you sophisticated to understand its intricacies? Can you order in a suitably informed way to impress your server, much less the chef?
The decline in the clarity of the menu goes hand in hand with the decline of the appetizer-entrée-dessert procession. Restaurants that frown on those who try to defy the menu’s basic parameters (think Danny DeVito’s egg-white omelets and strawberry frappes in Get Shorty) are taking it out on the rest of us. Now, it’s refreshing to enter a restaurant and order three courses with little resistance, as I recently did at Rotisserie Georgette, where a smartly roasted chicken is the anchor of a terrific, if unadventurous, meal.
The new trend in menus gives you nothing to hold onto: there are too many plates and not enough clarity, a latent invitation to order too much.
Ideally, a menu reflects its institution and then lets you navigate it in a personal way. At St. John in London, it’s spare and direct, in the spirit of the room and cooking. More severe establishments require you to leave your credit card number to secure a reservation before you enter a rigorous, multi-course tasting, with its world of regulations. At WD-50, two wonderful set meals are offered. But you’d better be with like-minded diners, because the entire table is going to have to have the same menu. The document sternly reminds you that there are No Substitutions, in case you thought about asking for a dessert that is different from everybody else’s.
See the mind games? The Balthazar menu design makes sure you don’t miss the high-profit items. (Photo: Grub Street)
The menu is becoming a battleground in the ongoing friction between chef and diner. Chefs resent entitled diners who think the establishment exists just for their pleasure and their Instagram feeds. Diners are tired of domineering chefs who think we should be grateful to witness their brilliance. It’s not the worst thing in the world for a restaurant to try to maximize profit, which explains the well-documented psychological gamesmanship of menu design: placing cost-friendly items in graphic boxes, omitting dollar signs, and so on. But the new trend in menus gives you nothing to hold onto: there are too many plates and not enough clarity, a latent invitation to order too much.
You might expect to find sanctuary in the wine list. Good luck. Recently, in Charleston I was confronted with a list that arranged wines by soil type. It was one of the more ludicrous documents encountered. It’s a reminder that, in the theater of dining, there’s nothing as simple as the written word.
David Coggins is a writer, editor, and copywriter. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Esquire, Art in America, Interview, and theWall Street Journal. He lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidrCoggins.
RELATED: Unlocking the Secrets of Menu Design