The art of the menu and ordering good food

Tips on making a great menu and avoiding buyer's remorse

The first thing every diner should do when perusing a restaurant's menu is to appreciate that picking an item from the list is so much easier than curating it. Diners only have to worry about paying for their order; menu makers have to think about plan Bs and one-offs and food cost percentages. Diners are only concerned with what they like; the restaurant must consider all of its customers' tastes. After talking with several local chefs and restaurateurs about the art of creating a menu, I came up with a list of five characteristics of a successful menu, along with five tips for helping you make your selection.

A good menu...

1. STAYS FOCUSED

Menus struggle when they try to be all things to all people, says Jonathan Locke, a former chef who's now a Minneapolis-based restaurant consultant and culinary educator. "When you do that, you dilute any hope of having your own personal identity," he says. A menu needs to be trim enough that a chef can execute consistent excellence, even if its brevity means some diners will choose to go elsewhere. "The Cheesecake Factory's kitchen is like an airplane hanger," Locke says. "But at most restaurants, there's not enough help to do that many items well."

2. COURTS THE "VETO VOTE"—BUT NOT TOO HARD

Here lies the rub of menu making: how to cast a wide enough net to draw diners in, yet stay focused enough to execute your vision and maintain a distinct identity. Locke explains that restaurants often can make concessions to the "veto vote"—the picky, hard-to-please diner in nearly every party who will rule a place out before setting foot through the door—as long as they don't go too far and alienate their core customers. He uses the example of one of his early clients, Buffalo Wild Wings. When the local chain got its start, the restaurants were all about dude food—even the management referred to it as "gut luggage"—being inhaled by a demographic of young men ages 25 to 35. But they were losing business when the guys' wives and girlfriends weren't able to find things they wanted to order. So Wild Wings now serves five types of chicken-topped salads and a list of what they dub "You deserve it" desserts.

Locke explains what he calls the "lady food" logic, which pairs lighter, smaller-portioned items such as entrée salads, fish, and chicken breasts with voluptuous, high-fat desserts. "Because a lot of your customer base is going to order something really disciplined for their entrées simply because they're looking for that dessert, and they won't be able to reward themselves otherwise," he says.

But, Locke cautions, a restaurant like Wild Wings doesn't want to court women diners so hard that the guys won't come in. "You need to appeal to as broad a swath of potential customers as possible, while still maintaining a lean and distinct identity," he says.

3. HAS A PLAN B

As menus get larger, they tend to become less efficient, especially if there's a lot of single-use inventory. You can't have too many such "onesies," says David Burley, co-owner of the Blue Plate restaurant group (Highland Grill, Longfellow Grill, etc.), if you want to keep your product fresh. "The 'one-offs' will kill you from a food-cost standpoint," he says. "You'll be throwing stuff away and prepping yourself to death." In planning the menu at Blue Plate's forthcoming Italian restaurant, Scusi, Burley says they decided to use the same fresh pasta dough in their lasagna, ravioli, and pappardelle. The dough used for pizza will also become rosemary flatbread on the charcuterie plate.

Seafood pasta, for example, can be a "plan B" for several types of seafood. Locke stresses that if ingredients are handled properly, plan B dishes shouldn't be considered lackluster leftovers, and they help the restaurant not to waste food. "The more efficiently you can run your restaurant, the fresher your food is going to be," he says. "It doesn't have anything to do with screwing your customer."

4. STEERS DINERS TOWARD ITEMS THE RESTAURANT MOST WANTS TO SELL

Locke refers to the menu as not just a list of food and beverages but a restaurant's last chance to advertise. "It should be able to direct the sale of the items you most want to sell," he says. Page position (a third of the way down from the top of the right-hand page), keywords (chosen with a copywriter's care, avoiding cheesy, generic phrases), and highlighting (boxes, icons, boldface type) can steer diners toward items that most improve the restaurant's reputation and bottom line. If a diner eats a dish the restaurant does best, versus one that's an afterthought, he's more likely to become a repeat customer. And while food-cost percentages are important, they're trumped by net income. A $6 pasta that costs $1.50 to produce may have a lower food-cost ratio than an $18 lobster sold for $35, but convincing the diner to chose the latter will bring in roughly four times as much revenue.

5. MAINTAINS FLEXIBILITY

Food costs are among the restaurateur's most volatile variables, due to seasonality and crop failures. Red bell peppers might cost $2 a pound in September, when they're sourced locally, and $6 in May when they're coming from Holland. During last season's drought in California, the D'Amico restaurants saw their tomato budgets balloon when the price of a flat shot from $18 to $60, says partner Richard D'Amico. Mitch Omer, chef and co-owner of Hell's Kitchen, says he's seen his meat prices double and seafood costs triple. "Right now the blueberries I use to garnish so many of my entrées cost more than the food itself," he says.

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