Restaurant Menus: The chorus of the kitchen

  1. The voice of a restaurant is in its menu. Yes, service is the backbone to hospitality. Certainly, decor is critical in ensuring a great experience for customers. Hours. Parking convenience. Pretty servers. All bits and pieces that make up the formula to keep the lights on.
    Rather, food that appeals to the broadest section of the spectrum that includes the customers coming through the door. Trends are trends; they will come and go, leave their mark, indelible or not, on the surface of the culinary forefront, then make way for whatever quinoa, kale or kombucha that is vying for our attention. Where is the successful menu born? Is it with the thought processes of the chef alone? Hopefully chef is gleaning the best of the internet, books, dining experiences, conversations with peers and other fonts of inspiration. Perhaps, the menu is a construct of a team effort with tasting panels, input from the front of the house crew, managers and peers. When the voice of the restaurant is finally birthed, what sound does it make as it carries through the dining room?

    Appetizers have become sharables. Entrees are becoming veg-centric. Sides are also growing to sharing sizes. A table for four is now a table for eight. As millenials flex their spending power, the movement to crowdsourcing the menu in terms of communal eating is upon us. Shirts are untucked. Formal is passé. And the nod to healthy-ish eating is a constant across the customer base. Modern menus are grasping the relaxed dining role.
    It is no mistake that Panera is crushing it! McDonalds is flat. Chipotle is a basic crowd pleaser. Quiznos is not. Whole Foods is a viable competitor. Red Lobster? Not so much. Food trucks with singular focus on excitement and quality reign supreme.

    Listen to customers. Sort of. To educate or not educate, that is the question.  There is a balance between serving nachos on every menu and guanciole egg rolls as a way to make a statement. Keeping customers interested is as important as keeping chefs and cooks interested. Flourish and eclectic ingredients of today become the standards of tomorrow. Blame it on the Food Network or YouTube cooking shows or Guy Fieri, but that is a fool’s errand. Except for blaming Guy Fieri; he can be blamed for everything. Rather, the palate will always evolve, grow more complex. Customer demands will always move from a position of relative safety to a position of swinging from the highest branch. Why? Because there are more flavors than vanilla. That isn’t Guy Fieri’s fault, but let’s blame him for something. There are comfort foods. There are certainly overexposed foods. Heard of brioche? Heard of bad brioche being served with a Wendy’s double? Exactly. There are ingredients that bop bop bop down the road to ubiquity. It is our job to keep customers interested, returning and alright with sharing their money with the restaurant. A little excitement with new toys in the kitchen does not hurt, either. Watch Chef Andrew’s eyes pop open when ramps hit in the spring. Or see Chef Greg’s top lip quiver when the newest IPA finds a home in the kitchen as a braising medium for bone-in pork loin.

    Showcasing the style of the restaurant is fundamental in caring for the restaurant’s menu. Gyros are not on an Asian menu. Obviously. So, the menu is the style indicator of what should be expected of the restaurant. Always. There is a difference between trend and turmoil. Trend is using sriracha for a play on spicy shrimp. Turmoil is replicating Guy Fieri’s spicy donkey sauce in noodle bowls. Round pegs go in round holes for a reason. Pistachios in pesto? Sure. Parsnips in pesto? Probably not.
    The menu from St. Francis in Phoenix tells a great story of what is in store for an anticipated dining experience. As does the list of offerings from Philadelphia’s Percy St BBQ. Clear, clever and interesting.

    Perhaps that is it. Make it interesting. Interesting does not mean bizarre. It certainly doesn’t mean bland. There is some level of comfort and at the same time there are goosebumps of excitement when great food comes screaming into the world.

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  1. jim berman
    @flipflopgirl - Thank you for sharing! I am glad you found the piece useful. To be honest, there is so much to be said about restaurant menus; from inception, trends, price points, etc. In my new position, I see sooooooo many menus that seem to be forgotten; relics of the by-gone days or out of touch. A shame, really. The menu should reflect the best of the operation, the staff, the intent of the owners. Hopefully.
    By the way... "Everyone can bring a side dish (I think I have the dessert covered lol ;-) make a few gallons of sweet tea and eat in the shade of the pecan trees in our  back yard. " Sounds wonderful! I would gladly rest under the shade of a pecan tree and the day roll on by.
    Thanks, again! -Jim
  2. flipflopgirl
    The fisherman and I always like to take a Saturday ride in the country with the idea of trying out a heard of but never visited restaurant (sharing our money is a great way to put it).
    Today it was to be
    ( check out the prices lol) with a plan to order the Saturday Fried Chicken Dinner and the weekend special (cut to order ribeye)..... to share.
    Then I read your article,Jim, and the Percy Street menu mentioned brisket and I became trapped midstream!     
    Altho to be honest we have had the Witt's unctuous fatty brisket (and those ribs!) more than once (discovered a few Saturdays ago) so by eating there we break our rule of trying a new place.
    I am of the mind to eat at Jay's then visit our new friends (the Witt family) and pick up some meat for our Sunday dinner with the family.
    Everyone can bring a side dish (I think I have the dessert covered lol ;-) make a few gallons of sweet tea and eat in the shade of the pecan trees in our  back yard.        
    Great article....really brought home the value of a well written menu.