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The Allure of Restaurant Menus

Restaurant Menus.

Photo: John Lawton

Not that artifice and manipulation are out of vogue. Oh, no. As author William Poundstone explains in his recent book Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (And How to Take Advantage of It), the design of restaurant menus has become a science and, increasingly, an industry. It turns out that the presentation of an item on a menu, its positioning, and especially the way in which its cost is communicated, can dramatically affect the amount of money a diner will pay for it. Many menus, for instance, now feature showstopping and exorbitant items, known in the trade as “anchors,” whose function is not so much to taste good, or even to be bought, as to make neighboring items look relatively affordable. Giant platters of fruits de mer make for good anchors, apparently.

This sort of trick has been embraced with particular gusto, as one might expect, by the lower end of the restaurant world, those multinational fast-food and casual-dining chains with razor-thin margins and customer bases in the hundreds of millions. But it’s “across the board” these days, Poundstone tells me. “Because this is how the human mind works. Whether you’re eating at McDonald’s or a really upscale restaurant, the way you make decisions is the same.” From a psychological standpoint, he says, the prix fixe menu is just a combo meal in a rented tux.

Danny Meyer, the New York City restaurant legend behind Union Square Café, Shake Shack, and Maialino, among many others, says the key to a great menu is to make “wording, pricing, font style, and layout all consistent with the experience you are already feeling.” It should be the focal point of a restaurant’s décor and ambience, he says, where, through meticulous design, the various aspects of a restaurant’s identity coalesce into a single “big, fat promise,” a big, fat promise that, correctly executed, speaks to needs far deeper than those of the taste buds and the stomach.

By this point I have spoken to Kimball Chen in New York, a lifelong menu obsessive and collector. Chen caught the menu bug as a very young man, cruising on the long-gone and impossibly glamorous S.S. France, and pursued it as an increasingly-less-young man over a career at the pinnacle of the global energy sector, a position that entailed eating in more, better, and farther-flung restaurants than anyone. However, even he can’t put his finger on what makes menus so elusively wonderful. “You’ve asked a very large question and you want me to give a brief answer,” he observes. “I can’t do that.”

Nor does he. Pausing regularly for breath, Chen uses a full half-hour to isolate and consider various aspects of menu awesomeness, from their potential as fodder for “sociographic trend analysis” to the more sensual, elemental joys of acid-free, heavy laid paper. Clearly, for Chen, the thrill of menus is bound up to some degree with the thrill of travel; menus function, for him, almost as maps, repositories of unique data as to Where One Is Now. But just as clearly, what is really being informed and enriched is the larger journey of a man through life. “Food,” Chen reflects rather wistfully at one stage, “doesn’t last.”

But menus do, and I think that’s it. Even before the food has been served, even before it has been cooked, the menu represents the solid and objectively observable reality of an experience that will, that must by definition, be private and ephemeral—and in that we surely find a deep reassurance. A good menu, by its nature, is pleasure incarnate. It stands as proof, or at least a defiant declaration, that while dreams, beauty, and experience are fleeting and pointless to try and hold on to, on their ethereal passage through this brutal world they can at least leave some physical trace. And no wonder, then, that the menu inspires us to indecision, that something inside us doesn’t want to make a choice. The menu is a list of dreams, and there is no more deadly natural predator for dreams than the awful human impulse to try and make them come true.

And so we resist that impulse. We hold on to the menu, and to those dreams, those glittering possibilities, for as long as we can. It’s not just, as Clark Wolf puts it, that “menus save you having to talk to the person you’re with”—though certainly, yes, that can be a factor. It’s more that in our refusal to make a choice, we are in fact choosing.

We choose it all.


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