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The Allure of Restaurant Menus

Restaurant Menus.

Photo: John Lawton

“Very good, and for you, sir?”

You is me and I just don’t know. “What I will have…obviously…is…. What I shall in fact have is the…the….”

Now, this kind of dithering is very much not what I’m about. You can ask anyone. When it comes to acting decisively it’s been said that I make George W. Bush look like Prince Hamlet after a bong hit, and I think that’s about right.

But all of that goes out the window, for some reason, the moment I enter a restaurant and am presented with its menu, even more so while traveling. I’m at Llansantffraed Court, in the Welsh countryside, contemplating dinner. But how can one possibly order the “Breast of Wye Valley chicken, sage and white onion risotto” if it means passing up the “Pan fried line caught seabass, crushed new potatoes, and citrus foam”? Every ambitious menu is a highly specific cultural artifact, reflecting a place, its language and flavors, and this one has reduced me to a state of mildly trancelike paralysis.

Yet for some of us it is ever thus. For some of us the job of choosing from the menu in a restaurant of any quality is always complicated by the knowledge that the act of choosing will be followed, swiftly and cruelly, by the removal of the menu, for which loss the ensuing plates of food are but partial compensation. For some of us, menus provide a pleasure unconnected to, or at least not reducible to, the anticipated pleasures of the dishes on offer, and this is as true today in the age of online menus and phone-dwelling restaurant “apps” as it ever was.

This is personal for me. Coming up on 20 years ago, in a fog of Gauloises and gangster rap, I wrote my college thesis on the use of adjectives in restaurant menus. It’s hard to read now, less for the bittersweet memories it dredges up than for the obligatory academic jargon it was written in, but the thrust of the thing was that restaurants, particularly the higher-end ones, load nouns up with superfluous descriptors—“Maltese oranges,” say, or “day-boat scallops”—not just to give the impression that ingredients have been selected with care and precision but also because the wanton squandering of the modifier’s everyday use-value conveyed an ineffable sense of luxury. Or something. Certainly had you asked me back then what accounted for the strange, hypnotic power of menus, I’m sure that’s what I would have said, ashing thoughtfully into my upturned beret: that it was all to do with adjectives.

But it isn’t. As you’ve likely noticed, and as I have to have gently explained to me by Clark Wolf, himself an English major turned New York City restaurant consultant, adjectives have all but disappeared from the modern menu. “Something had to be done,” says Wolf, who also lectures on this kind of thing at New York University. The abuse of adjectives had become so extreme around the middle 1990’s, he says—the sense that “there was some guy in a room peppering the menu with random words” so hard to avoid—that a revolution toward stylized transparency and even under description was inevitable. “Crab in two ways, hot and cold” is how you’re invited to begin your meal in London at the Michelin three-starred Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, and you can round it off with the gnomic “our cheesecake.”

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