Menus represent the changing values of the restaurant industry. And right now, more context is king.
It’s a familiar scene: After sitting down at a table, the waiter brings you a sheet of fancy paper with the day’s menu printed in pretty fonts. There are around a dozen dishes, which can be ordered as a tasting menu or a la carte. “We suggest four to five,” he says, smiling. There are no distinctions between starters and main courses, and you may assume the last item is a dessert because you read “strawberry, asparagus, and nuts.” But you don’t really know because those three words are the only description.
Noticing your hesitation, the waiter approaches and explains in detail each dish’s preparation before giving you a look that suggests that now is the time to make a decision. You point to four options that you believe are the right ones, and then wait and pray that the dishes that arrive will be even vaguely in the realm of what you expected. The minimalist menu trend replaced the descriptions and information that may have previously accompanied the names of dishes — details like preparation — with austere, spartan lines that are simply lists of ingredients.
But just as that information once did, the minimalist menu is disappearing. Thanks to the realities of post-pandemic restaurant operations — smaller staff among them — more restaurants are reverting back to full descriptors, with long, double-barreled lists of details about provenance, sauces, cooking methods, and sides. “Now that print menus are slowly coming back, restaurants are more willing to provide longer descriptions, which also helps them lure diners,” says Guillermo Ramirez, creative director of the Miami-based marketing agency Gluttonomy Inc. To diners right now, knowledge is power.
Menus represent the changing values of the restaurant industry. For a long stretch predating the minimalist trend, they were marked by the need to convey all that the chefs accomplished in their kitchens. In the 1980s, LA-based Chinese restaurant Mr. Chow’s described its Beijing Chicken in four lines. “The breast of the chicken is cubed, seasoned, and swiftly sautéed in a mixture of oil and white egg. 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 fashion in favor of other kinds of dish details. Former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni noted in 2007 that in the late 2000s, menu descriptions changed for a more “ethical purpose. The chef wants you to know where he’s getting the chicken, how the veal was raised. The chef realizes that you may make decisions about what to eat based on that information.”
Including information about ingredient sourcing, of course, has long been popular. Chef Sean Brock writes his menus only after figuring out what products he will have on hand to work with. “Although I have always enjoyed keeping the descriptions simple, I feel it’s important to give props to the producers, so we save that space for them,” he says.
About 10 years ago, influenced primarily by a Nordic minimalism movement, many restaurants opted for concise menus that listed just three or four ingredients instead of a more intricate 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 over the course of its nearly 20 years in operation. While the descriptive menus of the late 20th century aimed to give guests all the information they would need to feel in charge of their personal dining experience, the businesses that chose to eschew descriptions put more control in the chef’s hands.
To sell an item, this style of menu relies on the diner’s blind trust in the restaurant’s chef and the persuasive power of the front-of-house staff to tell the story of a dish, making it an especially popular choice in fine dining. Redzepi says he aims to provide enough information for diners to understand what the main ingredients are, while leaving some room to surprise. But “with Instagram, it almost doesn’t matter because people have seen everything on social media,” he says. “[Social media] changed the whole thing around, but I still like to keep it short.”
Brock agrees. At his high-end restaurant, Audrey, some descriptions are ambiguous: “A Study of Citrus” describes a dessert made with wekiwa, grapefruit, and mandarin (those ingredients are included on the menu, although unfamiliar diners will have to ask or Google to learn that wekiwa is a variety of tangelo). “At Audrey, we like to be even vaguer to trigger some curiosity,” says Brock. “Hopefully, I feel like this helps keep the diner engaged.”
But when the pandemic hit, the general approach to menu-writing completely changed. At many restaurants, QR codes relegated the pieces of paper on the table to oblivion. At the same time, people were ordering food from their houses as restaurants (even fine dining ones) pivoted to takeout. These diners were often consuming dishes far from the restaurants and their staff, who could no longer explain all the components of a dish simply called “sunchoke.” In short, a new need for information emerged.
At the recently opened Castamar in New York City’s West Village, the menu lists nearly every ingredient in each dish. The rosemary butter roasted chicken, for example, is described with “parmesan polenta, sauteed wild mushrooms, grilled eggplant, parmesan crisp, summer truffle jus.” Brian Pancir, Castamar’s executive chef, remembers working for years at Jean-Georges during the early 2000s. Then, he says, the menus were more detailed than the menus of the 2010s. “People knew exactly what they were going to eat.”
With Castamar’s fuller descriptions, Pancir believes that more menu details can give guests a fuller understanding of the food with less communication from servers. “People want to have all the information they can about what they are eating. There are more food allergies and dietary restrictions out there,” he says. He also believes restaurants are facing a generational shift in the way we inform consumers. Members of Gen Z, Pancir says, tend to be keen on more information and details about everything they eat. “They are usually 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 responsible for creating a meal, and a number of restaurants are adopting 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 make your food. It’s kind of like watching the end credits of a movie, or when you go see a Broadway show and you see everybody who’s worked on the production.” Dirt Candy’s dish descriptions themselves are also packed with information about ingredients and preparations, sometimes running as long as a paragraph.
Hazy and minimal descriptions can also lead to misunderstandings. Art director Ramirez explains that, to simplify explanations on menus, some chefs play with dish names, assigning misleading characteristics. “Many restaurants call any vegetable dip a hummus, or any food in a skewer becomes an anticucho, not giving any value to the consumer, and providing inaccurate information,” he says.
Often, more text leads to greater accuracy. In order to display the most precise information, some chefs have chosen to maintain 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 items — names that were also unknown to me, a native Italian — but followed with the ingredients written in English,” says Matteo Bologna, the creative director and founder of Mucca, a branding studio in New York.
Since he opened Lisboeta, a Portuguese-focused restaurant in London’s Charlotte Street, chef Nuno Mendes has decided to use the names in his native language to describe the dishes in the menu. “I thought it would also be important to have a little description of the process, since many recipes are not familiar to many people.” It’s not, he says, about going in-depth into history or tradition, but having some information so the guest can know what’s coming to the table. “We chose to tell the main ingredients of the dish and one or two cuisine terms. We explain if it’s served raw or roasted or grilled when it makes sense for the client to discern,” he says.
Mendes believes that people going to restaurants today want to know about the origin of what they are eating. “People built a deeper relationship with food during the pandemic. They no longer want to be so passive when facing a menu,” he says.
Ideally, the menu must 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 return in full force and need to create a new relationship with their guests. “I see a menu like any romantic interest: You don’t want to know every single detail from one first look, but you don’t want to have to engage in a six-part date to understand what you’re dealing with,” says designer Anna Polonsky, from Polonsky & Friends, a NYC strategy and design consultancy for restaurants and other businesses. “It must be a happy medium, where short should not mean clinically conceptual or pompous,” she adds.
Ultimately, menus these days are more about telling a restaurant’s story than listing dishes. As author Alison Pearlman points out in her book May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion, “a menu determines a lot of public relations.” Pearlman writes: “Not the least of a menu’s job once we cross the commercial threshold is to sell us items, including the restaurant as a whole.”
As Ramirez puts it: “In the end, the menu is just like a business card.” And, after months away from restaurants, diners are looking for more than the briefest of introductions.