The primary purpose of a menu is to inform us what a restaurant has to offer and how much they charge. It may seem simple, but composing this list is one of the most difficult and important tasks of a restaurateur, as a menu also must reflect the seasonal availability of ingredients, achieve a proper balance of tastes and textures among the available products, accurately project the qualities upon which the chef or restaurant's reputation or focus is set, and satisfy the numerous requirements of the customer. Or at least it should.
A century ago really only one golden rule applied: No dish should be included on a menu unless the chef is absolutely confident of its worthiness. This still holds true of course, but modern-day menu analysts maintain that composition is as consequential as content. In fact a number of tried-and-true rules regarding size, style, linguistics, and even subliminal layout of menus have been compiled and codified over the years, some obvious and common-sensical, others involving more than meets the eye, and still others concerned with literally what meets the eye.
A look at our local restaurants indicates that most of them, and almost all the finer ones, adhere very closely to the book on menu writing. Still, where there are rules, there are always exceptions.
Basic design precepts include no-brainers such as name and/or logo should always appear, avoid excessive color and fancy typefaces (never write an entire menu in script), and don't clutter. Mango's Tropical Café hands out the most frenzied, multihued menu on the Beach, and the News Cafés' pages are busy with restaurant and gift-store info, a photo with caption about live jazz, and multiple boxed and shaded items, but otherwise our local eateries do well on this score. Most also avoid menus that are unusually shaped or difficult to handle, though Shula's Steak House passes out a football with the menu written on it. Actually this works because it's easy to handle (unless you're a member of the San Diego Chargers) and cohesively tied to the restaurants' sports theme. China Grill's circular menu is less radical but still faces the problem inherent to using novel shapes: They're expensive to replace (you'd be surprised how much more a printer will charge for working within a circle). From the diners' vantage point, such menus can be fun. Or dangerous, like at the now-retired Colony Restaurant, which used to hand out heavy, sharply pointed metallic menus that, in less than graceful hands, could poke someone's eye out. Nemo uses equally weighty copper-backed menus, but the edges are smoothed, and they're narrow enough to manipulate easily. By the way the maximum span of an opened menu should never exceed 18 inches (height) by 24 inches (width), the rationale being that one should be able to lean it over a place setting, which generally is 15 by 24 inches.
Rules regarding linguistics also are straightforward, as in don't be cute with menu names. For one thing it provides ammo to reviewers. When Meza Fine Art gallerycafé offered up a teeny piece of corvina and called it “Old Man and the Sea,” who could resist writing that, “the old man should have thrown this one back”? More important though, such names should be avoided because most of us are adults and don't need to have our clam chowder called “Captain Crusty's” in order to enjoy it. We do need to be able to read the menu, so don't use a foreign language without translation. Our ethnic restaurants do well on this count, though the intro to Don Quixote's menu is written solely in Spanish. It also breaks another rule: Don't inundate the customers with information at the front of the menu, as it delays them from ordering (limited info on the back cover is okay). Be consistent in foreign language usage as well, not like L'Entrecote de Paris, whose headings go from Main Entrées to Side Orders/Appetizers to Nos Salades.
Atlantic Restaurant in the Beach House Bal Harbour is the worst transgressor of the don't overpromise maxim, handing out by far the most boastful menu in town. “Mom couldn't make it better!” is how they describe their roasted chicken; lobster potpie is “the best thing”; shrimp cocktail “smashing”; and gazpacho “glitzy,” whatever that means. Even mustard sauce is labeled “incredible.” Such promises are especially problematic if, as in this case, they aren't fully realized, but at least they don't break any truth-in-menu laws, of which there are hundreds. The ones most often violated: Sanka must be Sanka; Jell-O, with a capital J, must be Jell-O brand; maple syrup can't be maple flavored; Long Island duck, Dover sole, Maine lobster, even Idaho potatoes have to come from their namesake locations; “flown in daily” must be substantiated by invoices; “fresh” can't be fresh-frozen; a bowl of soup must contain more than a cup (some local places use shallow bowls that hold exactly eight ounces); and charcoal-broiled has to involve charcoal. Oh, and add-on gratuities must be mentioned up-front (got that, Toni?).
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.
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.
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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.