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WalkerSpeak: Menus Can Drive You Nuts

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When a diner opens a menu and the first thing that greets the eyes is a typo, it’s safe to say this isn’t the beginning of a great relationship.

All writers, including menu writers, commit typos.  But these days typos are having a real heyday. Because anyone can write and publish to his or her heart’s content online, with or without benefit of copy editors, typos really flourish. Misspelled words on popular blogs are not even taken seriously anymore, and sometimes they are done that way on purpose. Consider “Jebus” used to avoid profanity or “prolly,” used by the keystroke-challenged for “probably.”

A simple menu for good, chef-prepared food is offered at Nosh.

A menu that is passed out to customers in a restaurant is a printed product, as much as is a book or the printed newspaper.

Unlike many of the entries on a website or a blog entry, it is generally not typed up and sent out to a million readers in the blink of an eye. It can be read, re-read and even printed out and proofread before going to print. Or, if it comes out of the restaurant printer fresh with changes each day, surely there is time for several pairs of eyes to give it a good going over.

Certainly, as I told someone who asked me to check over some new menu copy recently, if the menu writer must use words from another language be sure they are used and spelled correctly. The word in question was “chiffonade.” The menu writer had spelled it “cheffanaude.” Yikes.

On the other hand, when traveling in another country whose language I do not read, I am pleased that a menu has been translated to English and more than happy to overlook typos as long as I’m getting a sense of what is being served. Yes, some of the typos can be deeply amusing, but when we travel we are ambassadors from our country and we don’t laugh out loud. (We don’t … right?)

Typos are not the worst thing, though. What really dismays me is pretentious menu writing.

A pretentious menu does not make the chef look good. It is as though the customer is being begged to admire the description, then expected to extend that admiration to whatever comes out on the plate — even if the food bears little resemblance to the glowing verbiage.

I’ve noticed in some fine restaurants a trend lately toward words offering a more matter-of-fact descriptions. Such as:

“Choice beef tenderloin with natural jus on wilted spinach, served with sweet potato croquettes.”

As opposed to:

“Our very finest natural beef tenderloin, carefully aged and cut to your specifications à la minute, stacked atop the freshest garden spinach, tenderly wilted then anointed with unsalted, organic butter, and Chef’s delicately crisp sweet potato croquettes fried in pure grapeseed oil and topped with a light snowfall of sea salt.”

The latter example just makes me tired. It’s precious, pretentious, and includes one particularly annoying word, the reference to the chef as Chef. Like the way nurses use “Doctor” in the hospital, which I deeply dislike. I mean, how old were we when (if ever) we called the head of the classroom “Teacher”?

Grilled Cheese Sandwich at The Monterey.

In casual restaurants I’m seeing some promising restraint. We stopped at The Monterey on South St. Mary’s recently, and the menu set down before us was quite simply worded. In some cases, it could have explained just a little more. For example, my eyes slid right past the entry “Grilled Cheese Sandwich.” Not being familiar with the restaurant I envisioned the usual fried white bread sandwich with a thin slab of American cheese inside, accompanied by a few pickle chips and a little paper cup of ketchup on the side.

I would agree that sometimes this is exactly what one wants, especially when one yearns for childhood.

The Grilled Cheese Sandwich at The Monterey, however, was purely an adult pleasure: stacked and tall, toasty and dripping with cheese and inviting you to smash your face in. This we didn’t do, as the sandwich was served to a party at a nearby table.

At Nosh, the casual eatery on the floor below Silo on Austin Highway, the list of salads mentions only ingredients. No preening adjectives; no overwrought verbs. It slips into pretension only once, and even this is with a sort of on-purpose silliness, with “Grilled Flatbread; Chef Robert’s daily gastronomical creation.” At least “Chef” has a name attached to it.

At one of San Antonio’s havens of fine-dining, The Sandbar, the menu just puts it out there: “Salmon Sandwich.” “Fish and Chips.” “Angus Burger.” If you’re into oysters, your server will tell you where they are from and will also tell you about the specials not on the menu. This latter usually comes with a flourish, because you never know what brilliant touch chef Chris Carlson has planned for the day. It could be a deep-fried poached egg, for example, which is an item, with or without deep frying, that will divide some diners.

And wouldn’t all of us prefer a pleasant surprise rather than an embarrassing disappointment? This is why I welcome any trend that gives well-prepared food a chance to shine in its own right. Elegant in its apparent simplicity, even if the chef and staff spent hours on its creation, then announced with elegant simplicity on the menu, as well.

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2 Responses to “WalkerSpeak: Menus Can Drive You Nuts”

  1. lemurleaf says:

    Thanks for another long-ish, ‘opinion’ article! I really like them, since you (and John) write them so nicely.

    I absolutely agree about the overly adjective-burdened menus. In fact, I see a menu like that and it is sufficient to inform me that the food will be crap. I like just enough description to let me know how the dish is likely to be prepared; any more than that, and they are trying to cover something up!

    • LL- thanks; every now and then we get worked up and write and write and …well, good thing some like to read and read. Other emails coming in about restaurant peeves, including “menu says risotto, what comes out is Uncle Ben’s” and “menu lists items that usually aren’t available.” I’d have to agree.