109 Seconds To Select Your Ecstasy: 5 Ideas To Improve Menus

Categories: The Critic
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It is said that the average diner peruses a menu for a mere 109 seconds. Before we get on to improving menus, I'd suggest diners improve their chances of getting a good meal by spending more time than that. But it is what it is, at least according to a feature story called Menu as Marketing Tool in the latest edition of Mise en Place, the alumni magazine of The Culinary Institute of America.

The menu is even more integral to the chef and restaurateur than it is to the customer; profits are made and lost according to item placement, pricing, utilization of equipment, and so forth. The whole menu/profit philosophy provides some interesting fodder -- for another time. Today's quintet of ideas is aimed at making the reading of menus better for the customer. All 109 seconds of it. 

5. Keep menus relatively short in size and scope, and structure them predictably.
"Predictable" means appetizers listed first, then soups, salads, pastas, and entrees ... in other words, clever or artistic arrangement of courses is never a good idea considering you only have 109 seconds to work with. 


Ezra Eichelberger, professor of Hospitality and Service Management at the esteemed culinary school and author of the Mise en Place menu piece, suggests grouping entrees (fish, chicken, meat, vegetarian). This allows the customer to jump to their preferred protein categories. Eichelberger advises that a mix of 10 appetizers, 10 main courses, and six desserts "is considered an adequate, well-balanced number of items." I actually prefer menus with even fewer choices than that, but I've found that most people don't feel that way. Short in size means not handing out big or long bulky listings that are apt to knock over wine glasses and such. 

4. Use a clean font and proper spellings.
There is a tendency among menu designers, especially of trendy new places, to make a bold statement by combining radical fonts and colors. Black-on-white really does work best, and it only makes sense that an easily-readable font is used. I'd like to see restaurant managers keep the room's lighting in mind when determining font; the dimmer the room, the bolder the lettering. 

Miami's menus are a mecca for misspellings, but in a way that's a good thing: It means lots of our meals are being prepared by cooks from cultures beyond our borders -- or else by people from Alabama, which is also good, as that state is known to have great cooking. But even if the owner of an establishment hasn't mastered English, there's no reason they can't find someone who has, and have that person review the menu. Spell-check isn't good enough by itself, as too many American restaurant food items are based, ironically, on foreign words (créme fraîche, frisée, etc.). 

3. Please stop the endless repetitions and useless words that make reading descriptions of menu items torturous.
The example given in the C.I.A. mag gets is just right. Instead of:

Grilled Marinated Chicken Breast
Chicken Breast, marinated in herbs and olive oil, 
then grilled to perfection, served with mashed potatoes 
with baby spring peas   13

Try this:
Grilled Rosemary-Marinated Chicken Breast
mashed potatoes and baby spring peas   13

I especially abhor the whole "grilled to perfection" nonsense, unless it's accompanied by the next menu item being described as "not grilled to perfection." Other adjectives, such as "delicious," "refreshing," "the best," and so forth, should be left out so that restaurant reviewers can use them later on without seeming like a copycat.

If you're serving an organic bird, it should be added to the description (Grilled Rosemary-Marinated Organic Chicken Breast). If you're serving an organic bird from Ted's Happy-Go-Lucky Free Range Chicken Farm, I think that info should also be added somewhere on the menu, although ideally not in the specific menu item description -- unless the farm has a much shorter name, like Niman Ranch

Note that the prices given in the above examples do not contain the $ notation. The author advises against it. I remain non-committal on this issue.

2. Forget about having your waiters verbally recite lengthy specials lists.
The reason you should forget about using this process is that the customer always forgets the specials; I have been known to take a short nap during the verbal specials recital that takes place at Macaluso's. And then the customers have to ask, "Could you repeat that?" By the third time this happens, the waiter acts annoyed and there is needless tension in the air. It should be noted that waiters get even more irritated if you phrase your request: "I think I got it -- I just need you to repeat the part that comes after 'These are tonight's specials.' 

I'd say three specials is about the most my brain can usually absorb before my eyes start to glaze over, which means most people will be able to retain five or six, tops. So, just for my sake, if it's more than three specials, have them written on a little board that the waiter can bring over to the table. 

1. Offer more variety in your dessert menu.
So often I'll look at a dessert list and note that three of five options have fruit in them, or that four of six are chocolate-based. Chef Tom Gumpel, a C.I.A. grad from the class of '86 and vice president of bakery development for Panera Bread, has developed the 5Cs approach to dessert menus. I'd never seen this before, and it seems really smart: Offer one each of a citrus, coffee, caramel, chocolate, and cheesecake dessert. I would substitute "cherry" for "cheesecake", just to get a non-citrus fruit in there while keeping the "c" thing going. This would lead to cherry cobbler, cherry pie, cherry streudel, and yes, cherry cheesecake. You could then switch the cherry to cherimoya or something when the berry season ends.

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