Fractured Menus

Michael Whiteman - July/August 2006

Entree, app, dessert is so yesterday's news. Michael Whiteman welcomes you to the world of the manipulated menu—deconstructed, rearranged, bulging with categories, seductively separating customers from extra dollars—a veritable circus of choices.

Before you write your next menu, I have a quirky suggestion: first, buy a new car. Or a laptop from Dell. In both cases, you'll encounter an array of choices so vast that you can custom-build these devices to suit your ego or your needs. This newfangled participatory shopping is called "creative consumption" by the marketing gurus.

Participatory shopping means that people today resent being mute consumers; they demand creative engagement when buying a computer or compiling the specs for their next Nissan—or any other activity in which buying things can be divvied into components. Like ordering a meal.

An easy example is the nearly infinite combinations and permutations on the menu board of Starbucks. This concept of participatory component-shopping is now spilling over into traditional restaurants, and it's having enormous impact. Menus are being deconstructed. New categories are being invented. The language is changing. Extra courses are being inserted. In extreme cases, all differentiation of courses is simply discarded.

For example, Palace Kitchen in Seattle slips a course of boutique American cheeses between apps and mains. This sly flagging of cheese as an up-front option allows app-cheese-wine "meals" in addition to conventional ordering. The menu also has a Late Night Breakfast category (sausage, cheese grits and butter poached eggs for $12). What you see here is a sly way of flagging cheese as an interesting up-front menu option instead of shoving it to the bottom as an afterthought. And while folks are lingering at the bar as Palace's kitchen is breaking down, the menu adds a cost-effective way of squeezing an extra 12 bucks from latecomers or late-stayers.

Fuse, a mixed-metaphor Tex-Asian restaurant in Dallas (salmon, asparagus, soy onions, pickled lime, chorizo), adds a cluster of Snacks after appetizers—ensuring that if they can't sell braised brisket potstickers for $9, they get another crack with $4 chile-scented edamame. And should guests escape those two categories, well then, right before the entrées there's a category of raw fish, called Crudos, that'll set them back $12 to $14. Dish in Atlanta starts with Tastes (including local cheeses) before Appetizers. The idea, one surmises, is to dangle so many temptations in front of customers that they'll bite on at least one, and maybe two, courses before tucking into their entrées.

Dragonfly, at Hotel Zaza in Dallas, headlines its menu with creative crudos (pineapple/ponzu oyster shooters with tobiko and sriracha) even before the appetizers. Boston's Vox Populi begins with Small Plates, then deflects readers' attention with an array of appetizers before the entrées. Call these "mid-course corrections."

The objective is similar at The Living Room W1, part of a London chain, whose menu goes even further: their one-pager features Breads (bruschettas, actually), Small Plates (snacks, really), Starters, Home Comforts (an array of golden oldies), and Mains—plus a children's menu.

Before the main courses at Restaurant LuLu in San Francisco, customers wade through Antipasti (three for $14.50), then Small Plates, then Pizzas (want one for sharing?) and Pastas. There's a high degree of seduction going on here, so even if someone never orders a main course, he might spend as much as he would for a traditional meal.

Norman's in Coral Gables, Florida, is even more overt: ahead of First Plates and Salads there's a batch of temptations called Before Your Meal—implying that any host with a decent sense of etiquette would begin with white sturgeon caviar and warm cachapas before even thinking about ordering apps. (Cachapas, by the way, are arepas by another name: fresh corn kernel pancakes from Venezuela and Colombia.)

Anjou Restaurant in San Francisco bridges the gap between first and main courses with a section called Large Appetizers/Small Entrées, luring the hungry with the likes of foie gras, leek salad, and sautéed apples for $13.

Is this a good thing? Does it slow down table turns? Confuse customers? Drive the kitchen nuts? Ethan Stowell, chef/owner of Union in Seattle, reports that "about half the customers have three courses. Some have three or more appetizers, but a lot of people do the firsts, seconds, and then entrées. Some order only apps, but it's not uncommon for people to have four or five courses each. I divided the menu into three categories, primarily to get people in Seattle to try more foodstuffs."

Bill Telepan, at New York City's new Telepan, says, "I set the menu up this way because I love Italian menu structure, with antipasti, primi, and secondi. From a business standpoint it allows people to have either two apps, two mids, and the option to share a main or to have two apps, split a mid, and have two mains." Do multiple courses slow service? "People sit a little longer, but we do pretheater tasting menus and get them out. New Yorkers eat at different times, so on Friday and Saturday we do three turns, even with extra courses."

Tom Douglas at Palace Kitchen adds: "About 50 percent of our guests simply graze from the appetizers and 50 percent order an entrée. We appreciate any guest who walks through the front door, so what's good for them is good for us!"

At the other extreme, Myth in San Francisco does away with titles and categories altogether. Its menu has a single list containing both large and small plates—so it's possible to order a small portion of black cod with asparagus, maitake mushrooms, Yukon gold potatoes, and bacon jus for $14 (or a large portion for $22) after first nibbling on sweetbreads with shiitake mushrooms and Sherry vinegar for $12, and then move on to a small order of black trumpet mushroom risotto with white truffle oil for $9 (assuming you're a wild fungus freak).

It appears that several trends are intersecting here:

• The country has gone small-plates crazy. It doesn't matter whether restaurants specialize in Greek, Chinese, Malaysian, Mexican, or Singaporean roadkill, if they can downsize main courses or dress up street food, they're doing the "tapas dance." People will spend as much for a dinky plate of three meatballs as for a bountiful bowl of spaghetti and meatballs because they don't have 90 minutes to chew over a traditional meal, they're avoiding starchy food, they're seeking lots of contrasting intense flavors, because they think they're saving money—or because it has become fashionable.

• Canny restaurateurs are slipping new temptations (middle courses for the table, snacks, platters of vegetables) in between traditional menu categories. Many now offer first course and second course appetizers or small plates before the main course. Some are inserting "dishes for the table" either as openers or before the main course. Cheese courses are popping up as events rather than as afterthoughts or alternatives to dessert—and watch next for pre-desserts before the real sweets.

• Some operators are entirely deconstructing their menus, leaving it to customers to play around and build their own meals.

• Along with all this, there's been an outbreak of "chef's tasting menus" in three, four, or five courses (or more), sometimes forming the basis of a restaurant's entire offering (one thinks of Per Se in New York City), sometimes as adjuncts to a regular menu. Variations of these show up at Michael Mina in San Francisco and Oceana in New York City (with two dessert tastings for $8 supplements), usually with wines to match.

The most interesting of these trends are the breakdown of formal menu structures into extra courses and new mix-and-match component menus. This is equivalent to the iPod Generation telling big record companies where to stick their overpriced albums; instead, people download song-by-song playlists—yet another example of participatory shopping.

People gain status these days by (a) exercising control of the purchasing process, (b) ordering things that give them new knowledge, and (c) ordering things that provide a sense of adventure—because when you only buy the components, you've minimized the risk. A small plate of fresh sardines on a Parmesan flan (which I just ate in Spain) may sound chancy, but hey!—for only eight bucks, I'll have a go.

This menu deconstruction trend is about engaging the customer. Therefore, you need to understand the psychological difference between a dinner of small plates and a chef's tasting menu. In a chef's tasting dinner you eat what the chef wants to serve, in the order that he wants it served, and everyone gets the same food, while in a small plates dinner, customers order what they want—from all over the menu—get it in the order they prescribe, and then share the goodies. They're practicing participatory shopping.

Furthermore, you need to understand why menus today are being "fractured" into as many components as can fit on a page with typographical coherence, because we've become a nation of restless eaters and attention-deficit shoppers who demand more options and more distractions. For example, how many presets are there on your digital camera?

Where did it all begin? Surely the cave man who first discovered that loin of bison could be served both "tartare" and "fire-roasted" (using today's buzzwords) must have invented menu choice. When it comes to the explosion of tapas-like food, three seminal events come to mind: the original international grazing menu that Barbara Kafka devised for our own Hors d'Oeuvrerie at Windows on the World in 1976; the Little Meals menus, presented on tiered silver servers, that Rozanne Gold invented for our Rainbow Room's bar in 1987; and Antony Worrall Thompson's ahead-of-its-time restaurant, Ménage à Trois, in London in the early 1980s that served nothing but eclectic small plates from a kitchen the size of a four-top.

When it comes to creatively fracturing menus, perhaps the pioneer was Lydia Shire, who, in her now-gone restaurant Biba in Boston, threw traditional courses to the winds and instead divided things according to Fish, Meat, Offal, Starch, and Legumina; you could tell openers from mains primarily by price. If you stayed just with small plates, an order of calves' brains with fried capers, followed by beef tartare with Coromandel oysters and yet another "first course" of rare tuna with Japanese parsley and garlic baked squid would all together set you back $38.50—these in 1993 dollars!

So you can see the economic logic of splitting menus into multiple choices where "all of the above" is the most seductive and expensive answer.

More recently I have to cite the mix-and-match deconstructed menu at Alain Ducasse's Spoon (Paris, London, Hong Kong, et al), where you choose a protein from column A, a sauce from Column B, and a go-with from Column C, then hope for the best (which usually you get).

Two contemporary mix-and-match experts in New York City take opposite approaches to component shopping. Café Boulud offers four separate menus: La Tradition, La Saison, Le Potager, and Le Voyage—each with multiple first and main courses. But each menu is priced à la carte so you can hop and skip around the world at your will. The irony is that if you mash them all together, the cumulative choices add up to what you'd get on a traditional menu, but the fractured format is much more exciting and, indeed, informative.

And then there's Craftsteak, where Tom Colicchio has taken fractured complexity to heights never imagined by a caveman. In what may be the ultimate expression of a steakhouse, it's possible to order beef from corn-fed Angus, Hawaiian grass-fed Angus, corn-fed Hereford, corn-fed Black Angus "natural," and Wagyu. But that's just the beginning, because New York strips start at $42 for 28 day aged and move up in seven day increments at the rate of $6 more per week—so a 56 day aged strip whacks $66 from your wallet. On his opening menu, Colicchio offered four different cuts of Wagyu beef, from $49 for an eight-ounce flatiron to $110 for a 10-ounce filet mignon. There were three separate Wagyu tasting menus. And 12 vegetables were categorized as roasted, sautéed, braised, or fried preparations (not counting three different mushroom options, four potato dishes, polenta, and a risotto). And this description hardly scratches the menu's surface!

Is all this genuinely revolutionary? Is it merely cyclical—like the width of men's ties or length of women's hemlines? Is it a sea change? Are we living with the unintended legacy of Burger King's "Have it your way?"

We think it's exciting, but cyclical. You have to remember (if you're old enough): before the age of word processors that conveniently and neatly centered food items dumbly down the middle of the page, all restaurant menus used to be designed; and there were lots of categories—because the printer, not the chef or a secretary with a cheap laser printer, did the typesetting.

The cliché, but wonderful looking, classic brasserie menus (Balthazar and Les Halles in New York City, Brasseries Flo and Bofinger in Paris) revel in odd typefaces heralding such captivating categories as Plateaux de Fruits de Mer, Hors d'Oeuvres, Entrées, Plats pour Deux, Plats du Jour, and Assiette de Fromages. We think them quaint today only because we're accustomed to visual dullness on menus that have no features and where nothing stands out. But these older menus engaged your interest. Right now it's the chains—Denny's, Bennigan's, Red Lobster, Chili's—that actually design menus for selling purposes.

I'm looking at a dog-eared and fragile Forum of the XII Caesars menu from our files, containing these rollicking categories (and more):

Shell-Borne Out of the Sea
Gustatories—Varied & Cold
More Provocatives—Hot
Mushrooms & Truffles
A Harvest from the Seas & Rivers
Sumptuous Dishes from All the Empire
Birds—Wild & Otherwise
Epicurean Trophies of the Hunt
Vegetables Prepared Whole in the Roman Manner
Frivolities—Aflame!
Sweetmeats & Ice Creams

In all, Craftsteak has far more categories and subdivisions than The Forum (although at press time, items already were being pruned away)—so we seem to be coming full circle.

Where does it end? Historically speaking, objects (like watches) and political entities (like the Soviet Union or FEMA) grow increasingly complex until at some unsustainable point the wheels start falling off—but we're not there yet, and probably won't be without a shuddering economic downturn. For now, though, it's a great time to make extra money serving extra courses to involved and demanding diners. And it's a great time to be a graphic designer.