It’s a familiar scene: After sitting down at a table, the waiter brings you a fancy sheet of paper with the day’s menu printed in pretty fonts. There are about ten dishes, which can be ordered as a tasting menu or à la carte. “We suggest four to five,” he says, smiling. There’s no distinction between starters and main courses, and you can assume the last item is dessert because it reads “strawberry, asparagus and walnuts”. But you don’t really know because those three words are the only description.
Noticing your hesitation, the waiter walks over and walks you through the preparation of each dish in detail before giving you a look that suggests it’s time to make a decision. You list four options that you think are the right ones, then wait and pray that the dishes that arrive are even vaguely in the realm of what you expected. The minimalist menu trend has replaced descriptions and information that might previously accompany dish names — details like preparation — with stark, spartan lines that are simply ingredient lists.
But just as this information once did, the minimalist menu is disappearing. Thanks to the realities of post-pandemic restaurant operations – which have smaller staff – more and more restaurants are returning to full descriptors, with long, two-way lists of details about provenance, sauces, cooking methods and accompaniments. “Now that printed menus are slowly coming back, restaurants are more willing to provide longer descriptions, which also helps them attract diners,” says Guillermo Ramirez, creative director of Miami-based marketing agency Gluttonomy Inc. For diners right now, knowledge is Power.
The menus represent the changing values of the restaurant industry. Long before the minimalist trend, they were marked by the need to convey all that chefs were doing in their kitchens. In the 1980s, Los Angeles Chinese restaurant Mr. Chow’s described its Peking chicken in four lines. “The chicken breast is cubed, seasoned and quickly sautéed in a mixture of oil and egg white. The sauce is added at the last moment,” reads part of the description printed in Menu design in America by John Mariani and Steven Heller, a compilation of American restaurant menus since 1847. But eventually including details of cooking methods, cuts, and techniques fell out of favor in favor of other types of dish details. Ancient New York Times Food critic Frank Bruni noted in 2007 that in the late 2000s, menu descriptions had changed for a “more ethical purpose”. The chef wants you to know where he gets the chicken, how the veal was raised. The chef realizes that you can make decisions about what to eat based on this information.
The inclusion of ingredient sourcing information has of course been popular for a long time. Chef Sean Brock writes his menus only after determining the products he will have on hand to work with. “While I’ve always liked to keep descriptions simple, I think it’s important to give producers props, so we’re keeping that space for them,” he says.
About 10 years ago, influenced primarily by a movement of Nordic minimalism, many restaurants opted for concise menus that only listed three or four ingredients instead of a more complex description. “[Danish restaurant] Ensemble was the first to really start changing the traditional format,” says chef René Redzepi, who has kept menus “sharp and precise” at his Copenhagen restaurant Noma during its nearly 20 years of operation. While the descriptive menus of the late 20th century aimed to give diners all the information they would need to feel in control of their personal dining experience, companies that chose to eschew descriptions put more control between chef’s hands.
To sell an item, this style of menu relies on the diner’s blind faith in the restaurant’s chef and the persuasive power of the front desk staff to tell the story of a dish, making it a particularly popular choice. in gastronomy. Redzepi says he aims to provide enough information for diners to understand what the main ingredients are, while leaving some room for surprise. But “with Instagram, it almost doesn’t matter because people have seen everything on social media,” he says. “[Social media] changed everything, but I still like it to be short.
Brock agrees. At her upscale restaurant, Audrey, some descriptions are ambiguous: “A Study of Citrus” describes a dessert made with wekiwa, grapefruit, and tangerine (these ingredients are included on the menu, though unfamiliar diners will have to ask or Google to learn that wekiwa is a variety of tangelo). “At Audrey, we like to be even more vague to spark curiosity,” says Brock. “I hope I feel like it helps keep dinner engaged.”
But when the pandemic hit, the general approach to menu writing changed completely. In many restaurants, QR codes have outlived the scraps of paper on the table. At the same time, people were ordering food home as restaurants (even fine dining) shifted to takeout. These diners often consumed dishes away from the restaurants and their staff, who could no longer explain all the components of a dish simply called a “sunchoke”. In short, a new need for information has emerged.
At the recently opened Castamar in New York’s West Village, the menu lists nearly every ingredient in every dish. Roasted chicken with rosemary butter, for example, is described with “parmesan polenta, sautéed wild mushrooms, grilled eggplant, crispy parmesan, summer truffle juice”. Brian Pancir, executive chef at Castamar, recalls working for years at Jean-Georges in the early 2000s. Then, he says, the menus were more detailed than the menus in the 2010s. ‘they were going to eat.’
With Castamar’s fuller descriptions, Pancir thinks more menu detail can give customers a better understanding of the food with less communication from servers. “People want to have all the information possible about what they eat. There are more food allergies and dietary restrictions,” he says. He also believes restaurants are facing a generational shift in how we educate consumers. Gen Zers, Pancir says, tend to want more information and details about everything they eat. “They are generally more food savvy and have clear ideas of what they want.”
Adding more information to menus is also an opportunity to give credit to the entire staff involved in creating a meal, and many restaurants are embracing the trend. Amanda Cohen, who recently began including the names of chefs who contributed to individual dishes on her menus at Dirt Candy, told Eater, “It’s fun to know the names of the people who cook your food. It’s a bit like watching the end credits of a movie, or when you go to see a Broadway show and you see everyone who worked on the production. The Dirt Candy dish descriptions themselves also contain information about ingredients and preparations, sometimes as long as a paragraph.
Vague and minimal descriptions can also lead to misunderstandings. Artistic director Ramirez explains that, to simplify menu explanations, some chefs play with the names of dishes, assigning them misleading characteristics. “Many restaurants call any vegetable dip a hummus, or any food on a skewer becomes an anticucho, giving no value to the consumer and providing inaccurate information,” he says.
Often, more text leads to greater accuracy. In order to display the most accurate information, some chefs have chosen to keep the names of dishes and ingredients in their native language and then explain them rather than directly translating a term or ingredient. “We recently branded a Milanese-inspired restaurant [Saraghina Caffè, in NYC] where we used Italian names for the items – names that were also unfamiliar to me, a native Italian – but tracked the ingredients written in English,” says Matteo Bologna, creative director and founder of Mucca, a branding studio in New York.
Since opening Lisboeta, a Portuguese-focused restaurant on London’s Charlotte Street, chef Nuno Mendes has decided to use names in his native language to describe dishes on the menu. “I thought it would also be great to have a little description of the process, since many recipes are unfamiliar to a lot of people.” It is not, he says, to delve into history or tradition, but to have information so that the guest can know what is happening on the table. “We chose to say the main ingredients of the dish and one or two cooking terms. We explain whether it’s served raw or roasted or grilled when it makes sense for the customer to discern,” he says.
Mendes thinks people who go to restaurants today want to know where their food comes from. “People have built a deeper relationship with food during the pandemic. They don’t want to be so passive about a menu anymore,” he says.
Ideally, the menu should be an invitation for the diner to trust the restaurant and the chef, and finding the best formula for this can present a conundrum as restaurants come back strong and need to create a new relationship with their customers. “I see a menu like any romantic interest: you don’t want to know every detail at first glance, but you don’t want to have to engage in a six-part date to figure out what you’re up to. business,” says designer Anna Polonsky, of Polonsky & Friends, a New York-based strategy and design consultancy for restaurants and other businesses. “It has to be a happy medium, where short doesn’t have to mean clinically conceptual or pompous,” she adds.
Ultimately, menus these days are more about telling the story of a restaurant than listing dishes. As author Alison Pearlman points out in her book May we suggest: restaurant menus and the art of persuasionn, “a menu determines a lot of public relations.” Pearlman writes, “Not the least of a menu’s job, once it crosses the commercial threshold, is to sell items to us, including the restaurant as a whole.”
As Ramirez says, “Ultimately, the menu is like a business card.” And, after months away from restaurants, diners crave more than the briefest of introductions.