The art of the menu and ordering good food
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.
The restaurant can choose to reprint its menus, absorb the cost, or tack on a surcharge, as Punch pizza did when the price of the pine nuts in its Punch Salad skyrocketed earlier this year. But a menu is a promise between the restaurant and its diners: If the menu says the ketchup is homemade, it had better be homemade; if it says the beef is prime, it must be prime. To the restaurant that substituted shrimp for the lobster it promised in a pasta dish without first informing the diner: One of your customers, Saffron chef-owner Sameh Wadi, is too tactful to shame you publicly, but that doesn't mean he wasn't ticked.
And now, to make the best choice on a menu, a savvy diner...
1. SKIPS THE OBLIGATORY ITEMS —UNLESS THE CHEF TAKES THEM SERIOUSLY
"I tell my students, 'If you put this on your menu I will shoot you,'" Locke says in reference to the ubiquitous grilled chicken Caesar salad. Making an exception for house-made dressing, Locke asks the rhetorical question: "Why do I need to go to a restaurant to open a jar when I can make a grilled chicken Caesar at home really easily?" Restaurants provide a different service than grocery stores—Loring Kitchen, I'm talking to you and your bowls of cold cereal.
Take chicken, which is desirable to many customers for its low price point and mild flavor, but often turns out boring. Unless it's a house specialty—fried chicken at a soul food joint, for one—or in the hands of a skilled chef, you probably want to skip it. "Hopefully, with obligatory menu items," Wadi notes, "the chef is savvy enough to make them interesting." His chicken holds its ground next to the menu's lamb shoulder and duck breast entrées because it's marinated with exotic spices, roasted, and basted with butter, so the skin gets crisp and the meat stays succulent.
2. LOOKS FOR OUTLIERS
We're not talking about the sports bar's rendition of chicken stir-fry. Keep in mind that cultural dilettantism generally tends to be dicey, and barbecue and pizza tend to be best at places that focus exclusively on them. But at chef-driven restaurants, diners can learn to spot creativity and personality—the daring dish that the chef really wanted to put on the menu, knowing it may have to come off in a month if it doesn't sell.
At Saffron, the lamb brains appetizer is an outlier that became a sleeper hit. "I sold out of lamb brains on a Thursday," Wadi says. "Never in my life did I think I'd have such awesome customers." Wadi can be more adventurous with his menu because those are the sorts of dishes customers want to order when they come to his restaurant. "I've never worked at a restaurant that sold as little beef as we do," he says. "But it's not the star of the show."
3. SEEKS OUT LEADERS
Grocery stores sometimes discount popular items to at or below cost to lure shoppers who will, in turn, buy a whole cart full of profitable goods. Restaurants will sometimes employ a similar strategy for dishes they hope will distinguish them from their competition.
At D'Amico's new Parma 8200 in Bloomington, much of the menu tends toward Italian classics, such as chicken Parmesan. But the restaurant also offers a few more original items, including the grilled asparagus with burrata and roasted hazelnuts. The luscious cheese is expensive and highly perishable, but Richard D'Amico says they priced it competitively so people would be encouraged to order it and enjoy their experience. "We don't make as much money on it," he admits. "We probably get the worst margin on that dish, but it all balances out."
4. ASKS THE SERVER
What's the main piece of advice about navigating a menu that chefs and restaurateurs wanted to pass on to diners? Ask the server. Ask for highlights, must-haves, and what the employees like to order. The servers are on the front lines of customer feedback; they see what dishes diners polish off and rave about, and which ones are merely picked at. "Put your trust in the service team," Burley says. "If you can't put trust in the service, then you're in the wrong restaurant."
5. ORDERS OFF THE MENU
This advice certainly depends on the type of restaurant—how busy it is, how flexible it can be—but it can apply to both the pickiest and most adaptable eaters. Michelle Whitelaw, who manages operations at Dancing Ganesha, says she encourages diners who don't see something they want on the menu to ask if it can be made. Typically, the kitchen can make, say, a grilled chicken breast and rice for someone who hates spicy, highly seasoned food, or an animal-free dish for a vegan. "People can be accommodated," she says. "Chefs love to be creative and to be given the opportunity to do something they don't do every day."
For adventurous eaters dining at chef-driven restaurants, the best option may be to follow the sushi bar practice of omakase, which translates, roughly, to "It's up to you," and leave your meal in the hands of the chef. Tell the server what sorts of things you like, how much you'd like to spend, and let them plan your meal for you. "That's what I typically like to do," Wadi says. "I just say, 'Go ahead, you pick for me.'"
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