Menus make us hungry, but they also have a deeper, existential power.
Credit: 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.”

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.

Evolution of the Menu

1200–1275: Song Dynasty restaurants in Hangzhou, China, supply the first written menus to diners flush with newly invented paper currency. Choices include bean-curd soup and silkworm pie.

1773: In France, so-called maisons de santé, or “health houses,” offer a sit-down restaurant experience in a clean environment.

1837: Delmonico’s, in New York City, becomes the first American establishment to describe itself with the French term restaurant and prints the first U.S. menu. Oysters Rockefeller is featured prominently, as it is to this day.

1867: The age of steam…and romance! Diners in luxurious Pullman railroad cars, made in Chicago, are offered menus and served lavish, freshly prepared meals.

1936: United Airlines sets up the first flight kitchen in Oakland, California, and distributes printed menus on board. Philosophers and game theorists begin decades-long analysis of the statement, “We apologize in advance if your selection isn’t available.”

1945: Allied soldiers occupying Japan after World War II are baffled by local menus. Enterprising restaurateurs hire candlemakers to create illustrative wax models of every dish. The tradition lives on today, in plastic.

1950: A period of prosperity and general social upheaval sees the invention and rapid proliferation of menus for children. Word-search puzzles and easy-to-solve mazes follow shortly after.

1988: American Airlines launches its Chef’s Conclave with Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, among others, introducing the first celebrity-chef–designed airline menus.

2001: Menus go digital: pizza chains Domino’s and Papa John’s publish their menus and allow ordering online.

2009: The touch-screen wine list at New York’s SD26 restaurant provides exhaustive detail on more than 1,000 high-end bottles. —Bruno Maddox; research by Nina Fedrizzi