Menus by the Book

What's in a menu? Usually the success of a restaurant.

One formula for menu formatting involves placement of the more profitable meals according to subliminal habits of the human eye. For instance when we open a menu, the tendency is first to scan the item at what is referred to as the “imaginary” horizontal center, which is just below where the real center line exists (because the page-top headings, as in “Appetizers,” pushes all the text down). Within each menu category, the eyes stop longest at the first dish and the last. Upon each subsequent perusal, most of us will begin by re-reading the top item again before skimming through the winnowed choices. There's no evidence that these eye-catching spots are taken advantage of by local restaurateurs, but apparently they are aware that one should never place prices too far to the right. This de-emphasizes the cuisine at the expense, literally, of the costs. Astor Place, Blue Door, La Palme d'Or, Pacific Time, Mark's, Wish, Crystal Café, and Norman's all print prices within hugging distance of the course descriptions' last word. Only Ortanique, among our critically acclaimed spots, allows its prices to drift to the right.

Surprisingly most steak houses, including the Forge, Palm, and Morton's, are guilty of this transgression. You'd think these high rollers would be precisely the places that would try to de-accentuate the numbers.

Other tricks of the trade, such as boxing the most profitable items, are more common to family and chain restaurants than they are to fine-dining establishments. Balans, Café Papillon, the News and Van Dyke cafés all use this device for their less-expensive but high-dividend foods like hamburgers, quiches, and breakfast specials. Atlantic goes the other way, boxing high-end “market price” seafood specialties such as stone crabs, a shellfish tower, and catch of the day. Red Square places a square around its caviar selections. The most judicious use of a box goes to Spris; there's just one on its menu of more than 60 offerings, and it's located right at the imaginary center line. The item Spris has chosen to showcase is the saltimbocca panini sandwich filled with prosciutto, mozzarella, arugula, and tomato, for $8.95. That's $2 more than any other sandwich and, if you can draw your eyes away from the box, you'd find a prosciutto, mozzarella, and eggplant panini for just $5.50.

Jeremy Eaton
Jeremy Eaton
Jeremy Eaton

Location Info


China Grill

404 Washington Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Music Venues

Region: South Beach

Blue Door at Delano

1685 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: South Beach


21 Almeria Ave.
Coral Gables, FL 33134

Category: Restaurant > Contemporary

Region: Coral Gables/South Miami

Ortanique on the Mile

278 Miracle Mile
Coral Gables, FL 33134

Category: Restaurant > Caribbean

Region: South Dade

Morton's The Steakhouse

1200 Brickell Ave.
Miami, FL 33131

Category: Restaurant > Steakhouse

Region: Brickell

If boxing is the domain of less formal eateries, the opposite is true of the rule to use a separate dessert menu, which applies mainly to upscale places. One reason for their use is that it cuts down handling of regular menus, more expensive to replace, by 50 percent. On a more subconscious level, receiving the regular menu again reminds us of how much we've already consumed, and how much we've already spent. We also might come across a dish that we had considered ordering but passed over in favor of a less-than-satisfying choice. This regret can cause just enough bitterness to make us lose our appetite. It's also important that the dessert menu should be petite in size, which in our mind's eye suggests “small dessert,” or “just a little more.” Jonathan Eismann of Pacific Time offers perhaps the most practical rationale for his use of distinct menus, which likely would be seconded by many others: “There's not enough room on our regular menu to fit the desserts.”

Which leads to the most controversial of tenets: When it comes to content, less is more. A few reasons for not creating a large menu: 1. It confuses customers and delays ordering. This, along with the potential for more questions about particular dishes, tends to slow service as well.

2. It overburdens the kitchen staff. It takes longer to prepare 80 entrées than it does to prepare 8, even if many ingredients get recycled into numerous dishes. It also requires additional training for kitchen and service employees.

3. Food quality suffers and waste increases. The more products on hand, the more difficult it is to move them all out, meaning it's harder to keep things fresh.

4. Service slows owing to bottlenecks in the kitchen. If a fry cook gets three orders each of fries and shrimp, he can simply fill the fryer baskets higher. If he gets orders for six different fried items, he'll have to fry in three batches, which can throw off the kitchen's timing.

5. More to receive, store, rotate, and inventory, all of which take extra time and money.

The trend toward mass-appeal dining runs contrary to this philosophy, and indeed if an establishment generates a robust-enough business, the turnover of product will help avoid many of the problems inherent in large menus. That's certainly true of Nexxt Café and Big Pink, both busy places that hand out spiral notebooks stocked with twenty-plus pages of food selections (although Big Pink bulks their menu by including full-page ads, not even food-related). This is such a shockingly egregious offense that no one ever thought to draw up a rule discouraging it. Besides, rules are only rules, but this ought to be against the law.

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