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Calling Out The Contemporary Menu

This is a manifesto for simple menus: let your food be inspired and your verbosity be chopped.

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This is a manifesto for simple menus: let your food be inspired and your verbosity chopped. We savor a menu with concise, precise words. We value transparency over fluff. We want menus that tell us what we’re getting without overwhelming, confusing, or deceiving. We want food to be described, not embellished. Let the dish do the talking — keep your menu-mouth shut.

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The past few years, I’ve lived in the two best food cities in the USNew York and San Francisco — and before that I ate my way through three serious contenders: Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles. I’m a equal-opportunity diner, and I’ve been handed menus at both the $$ and the $ digs. I’ve lamented overt source-boasting by the high-end spots. I’ve debated how to best describe a dish with chef friends. I’ve suffered description diarrhea at the low-end spots — that never-ending endorsement of a restaurant’s own food. And I’ve had enough. The menu’s become a soap box, preaching the chef’s (or corporation’s) gospel, and it’s time to tone down the evangelism.

The menu’s become a soap box, preaching the chef’s (or corporation’s) gospel. It’s time to tone down the evangelism.

Granted, this can be tricky. High-end restaurateurs are using the menu to provide eaters with information on the source and preparation of expensive food. Where the food comes from (Mary’s Organic chicken), what it was fed (grass-fed beef), and how it’s prepared (slow-roasted tomatoes) makes a difference. On the other side, low-priced eateries have to convince diners that certain foods meet certain standards — and in the world of American processed foods, this matters more than we think. Real Mashed Potatoes are a world apart from Instant Potatoes, no matter how opaque “real” is. Still, let’s call a spade a spade — there’s verbal-menu-vomit all over the place. And it’s time to clean up our act.

Where the Menu Stands, Linguistically

Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford linguist and computer scientist, is a nerd/foodie double threat. He took his complex language programming and studied 6,500 menus and 650,000 menu items, then compiled his findings on menu jargon in the first chapter of his book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. Jurafsky draws three main conclusions: more expensive restaurants leave the diner fewer individual choices (that prix fix), longer words in food descriptions lead to higher prices (your buckwheat orecchiette is costing you), and “linguistic fillers” correlate to lower-priced food (all that “fresh, crisp” lettuce drops the $’s).

All the gaufrette (wafers) and cipollini (onion) on a menu will increase the price 18 cents per additional letter per word.

So let’s ponder the proliferation of “Chef’s Choice”. These days, the high-end guys have teetered the totter away from the diner and toward the kitchen. You walk in the door of a restaurant, and the attitude is, “You came to this restaurant for a reason, right? So let us be in control.” Not that that’s a bad thing. These menus tend to be sparse, selective and — more than anything — intentional. On the flip side, sit down at the Cheesecake Factory and they’ll drop a book in your lap (ads and all). Their angle: inspire diners with the power of endless choice. Jurafsky found that, statistically, the more options, the lower the price. He explains: “Expensive ($$) restaurants have half as many dishes as cheap ($) restaurants, are three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice, and are seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

That’s macro. Here’s micro: Jurafsky found that the length of individual words (not, notably, overall description length) correlates to higher item prices. All the gaufrettes (wafers) and cipollini (onion) on a menu will increase the price 18 cents per additional letter per word (taken as an average of all dish descriptions). On the other end, the use of “linguistic fillers” — which Jurafsky describes as “vague words like delicious and synonyms tasty, mouth-watering, flavorful, scrumptious, and savory, or words like terrific, wonderful, delightful, and sublime” — translate to a lower price per dish. You suffer Chili’s verbosity, you’re rewarded with an $8 burger. Vague words (tasty!) drop prices nine percent on average. Appealing adjectives (sublime!) cause a two percent drop.

All the data points to this: the pricier the food, the more concise the description and the longer the individual words. Here’s a burger showdown, as example:

Chili’s Oldtimer: A Chili’s classic – improved! Hand seasoned beef patty, seared to perfection. Topped with NEW house-made garlic dill pickles, fresh leaf lettuce, tomato, sliced red onions & mustard. ($7.59)
Maven (SF): Maven’s Burger – angostura, house pickles, muenster ($13)

Chili’s, if they cared about efficient reading, could save 17 words by narrowing the entry down to “seasoned beef, garlic dill pickles, lettuce, tomato, red onions & mustard” — a much more clean entry I’d prefer to see. Maven, bless their artisan souls, leave out the fluff, but add longer vocabulary with “angostura” and “muenster”. The fillers drop one burger’s price; the bitters and German cheeses up the others. Obviously, this isn’t a causal relationship, but the research fits most dining experiences.

Lower-priced chains live in a world of vagueness, and once you set out on the trail for “linguistic fillers”, they crop up everywhere. McDonald’s online description of their burger waxes on about their illustrious Big Mac: “A double layer of sear-sizzled 100% pure beef mingled with special sauce on a sesame seed bun and topped with melty American cheese, crisp lettuce, minced onions and tangy pickles.” Melty. Tangy. Mingled with. Sear-sizzled.

Lower-priced chains live in a world of vagueness, and once you set out on the trail for “linguistic fillers”, they crop up everywhere.

Fearing a global-chain-centric search, I studied a local suburban pizza parlor menu from back home in CA, Rubino’s. They flaunted “real garlic” and “fresh tomatoes”, as if there were another kind. Next I looked to L.A.’s taco staple, Tito’s Tacos, hoping their minimalist ordering board would translate to an online menu that’s the same. I got a bean burrito that has “Refried Beans wrapped in a hot off the grill Flour Tortilla”. Why hot off the grill? What do they have to prove? In-n-Out, that most minimalist of burger joints, wouldn’t let me down — I thought. Their signs have changed little since 1948 (the font’s still the same), but online, they boast “fresh, crisp & hand-leafed” lettuce and a tomato slice that’s “from only the plumpest and juiciest” tomatoes (how to quantify?). In these restaurants’ defense, their in-person menus are simpler. But still, when given the opportunity to describe, they err on the side of extraneous verbosity. Why?

The symptom is a part of the greater disease: menus trying to defend their food. In-n-Out finds the need to declare their quality (“100% pure American beef. No additives, fillers or preservatives”) to differentiate themselves from the negative perception of fast food. Tito’s wants to highlight the specialness of preparation your food will receive — “hot off the grill!” — and Rubino’s wants you to know their garlic is “real” and tomatoes “fresh”, wherever that may mean. Once you’ve seen the trends, it’s hard not to notice the subtle undercurrent of persuasive speak swaying your dining experience. It’s mildly manipulative, and that sucks.

How the Dollar Signs are Doing It Right

Chipotle, that maven of positive-perception fast-food, does things right. Their in-store menu is streamlined and simple. It gives options (as lower-priced eateries do), but it keeps descriptions tight. Even on their website, they keep the descriptions to actual ingredients, rather than fluff. “Barbacoa: Spicy, tender shredded beef, braised with chipotle chilies, garlic, oregano, cumin, and cloves.” “Guacamole: Ripe Hass avocados, mashed with sweet red onions, jalapeños, cilantro, and fresh lemon and lime juice.” Even “fresh lemon and lime juice” is a distinction worth making (differentiating from a lemon or lime concentrate). The menu is lean, and they allocate a separate section to discuss the source/raising practices of their ingredients. If you want food, you look at the menu; you want an education, you dig further on a separate section of the site.

This mindset permeates more thoroughly as you head deeper into the dollar signs ($ and $$ restaurants). The Meatball Shop in NYC uses a spare tic-your-own-box menu, then keeps a box in the lower corner to explain their sources (“We proudly serve Heritage Pork, Creekstone Farms Beef, Murray’s Chicken and Produce from Local Farmers”). “Local Farmers” is vague but prevents a long list of names, and the rest allows the inquisitive menu-reader to learn more concrete facts about their food. It’s unobtrusive, but informative. Even the Italian shop I grew up with in Orange County — Cosmo’s Italian Kitchen — does well to keep their menu focused. They describe the Shrimp Rustica as: “Bowtie pasta with shrimp, artichoke hearts, sun-dries [sic] tomatoes and mushrooms in a roasted garlic cream sauce.” Straightforward and concise. It’s not that hard.

As we wander higher and higher up the dollar chain, there’s less and less defensive language and more and more descriptions of the providence of the food.

A San Francisco institution, Wise Son’s Deli, goes one step further, invoking the quality of their beef in the item description. “Braised brisket — hormone & antibiotic free beef brisket braised with beer, onions, & prunes; served with maple horseradish turnips”. For some, this is a step too far — don’t muddle my conscience and the description of your food. On another menu (for the Contemporary Jewish Museum), they use a more broad statement: “We are proud to serve house-made deli meats made with only natural, hormone & antibiotic-free meat” at the top of the menu. It’s a preferable method.

As we wander higher and higher up the dollar chain, there’s less and less defensive language and more and more descriptions of the providence of the food. A $$ neighborhood dig in SF’s Mission neighborhood, Heirloom Cafe, serves a “Liberty duck breast, beluga lentils, kuri squash, brussels sprouts” and “Hoffman chicken breast, herb bread pudding, parmesan broth, mirepoix”. Liberty is a local Sonoma poultry provider, and Hoffman is a large-production farm in Manteca, long used by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. For the educated locavore, the nod to providence is appreciated, and also implies the quality of the food to come; to some, it’s too heavy handed.

Splitting Hairs to Make a Point

But sometimes those lofty high-end menus still go wrong. Amali’s “Line Caught Whole Fish, Kritiko olive oil, lemon, thyme” inspires a sense that the unspecified fish enjoyed a good swim before coming to his end, but the “line caught” is a nebulous (and tenuous) term. It implies sustainable fishing, but “line caught” isn’t currently a standardized term. Same with Marlowe‘s “Certified Angus New York Steak”, a ranking that refers to marbling quality, not the treatment or feed of the cow. Here, I doubt that restaurants and menu designers are intentionally trying to deceive diners. But there should be a cognizance that some terms, while goodnatured, are still vague.

There’s also the problem of obscure terms that go unexplained. Jurafsky calls out “tonnarelli, choclo, bastilla, kataifi, persillade, and oyako (from Italian, Peruvian Spanish, Arabic, Greek, French, and Japanese, respectively)” as particularly frequent offenders. (That’s pasta, corn, meat pie, cheese pastry, parsley seasoning, and rice bowl.) Using these words (or their ilk) shows a vehement adhering to native terminology — or a sense that obscurity leads to intrigue. For the crop of chefs I’ve know who create their own menus, this is more a matter of fidelity to the foods and traditions than tricking or impressing diners. Or, if it is a matter of impressing while informing, the food reflects that same mentality. Patrons of those restaurants should know what they’re getting into — and the descriptions, as obtuse as some of the ingredients may be, are likely straightforward. Quince, a SF staple of high-end cuisine, offers a middle ground. A dish like “Cinta Senese Pork Due Modi” can confuse. But Quince leaves a footnote for the diner: “The Cinta Senese is a breed of pig from Siena, Tuscany. The breed is revered for its distinctive flavor and notable tenderness.” The untranslated due modi (“two ways”) is intentionally opaque, but kudos for the sus domesticus education.

An overzealous interpretation of the contemporary menu at the (hypothetical) Gear Patrol hashery, "Latitude".

The Menu We Want to Read

A perfect menu balances relevant descriptions that trust the presumed food education and expectations of their audience. It doesn’t disguise dishes with lofty, vague language. It puts honesty before fluff. And, best of all, it does exist. Let’s start at the bottom, with Arby’s. Their online menu describes the flagship Beef ‘N Cheddar Classic like this: “People said there was no way Arby’s roast beef sandwich could get even better. We took our famous roast beef, topped it with Cheddar cheese sauce and zesty Red Ranch and served it on a toasted onion roll. And then we said ‘I told you so.'” The linguistic fillers — which, kind of fit for the audience — show self-awareness and levity, and the description is relatively spare of fluff. “Zesty” is the only real stretch.

In higher-end spots, there are ample examples. SF’s Central Kitchen punctuates their items to add to the cleanliness: “Saffron Spaghetti – clams. mussels. bottarga. chili.” “Carrots & Citrus – fresh ricotta. green olive. pistachio.” It’s to the point, and nothing more. The Finch, in Brooklyn, does the same, if with fewer periods. “Cheese – Humble Pie (VT), Pleasant Ridge Reserve (WI), Lincklaen (NY)”; “Smoked Squid with Basil & Carrot Purèe”; “Trout with Spaghetti Squash, Sweet Potatoes & Apple Cider Sauce”. Sources are given (if needed), and the rest is implied or can be inquired about.

These offerings are concise, the words precise. There’s no fluff. Transparency arises where needed. There’s a dish on display without any residual nature of overwhelming, confusing or deceiving the diner. It’s a description, not an embellishment. As Jurafsky writes, “less is more, in words as in food.”

So here’s to the simple menu. Let us raise our forks in its honor. May it save us time, and words, and speed up the passage of the food it describes. May we eat well, read easily and be merry.

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