Menu Mayhem: Part I

It’s a clear, warm Saturday night in August, around 7:00 PM, when you decide to go out for a nice dinner with your darling.

You arrive at your destination: a mildly extravagant downtown eatery. After being led to your seats, you and your lover open the menus and begin scanning them while discussing the day’s events.

A few moments pass and you are gently interrupted by a well-spoken man in his late twenties with a clean but edgy haircut and a light beard.  With a confident and friendly tone, he introduces himself and adds that he will be your server for the evening. You order a couple of drinks to sip while you scour the selection of appetizers and entrées.

You take turns pointing out potential choices, but each one doesn’t quite fit your appetite tonight. The peppercorn steak looks appetizing, but you don’t really feel like eating that much meat. The southwest chicken salad sounds delicious, but it’s a salad. Several unproductive minutes go by and the server returns to take your order.

You request a few additional moments to finalize your selection, but you’re actually less sure about what you’re going to order than when you walked in. After frantically turning the pages back and forth, you surrender – there just isn’t anything good on the menu.

This is not an uncommon experience for restaurant patrons, usually ending with the defeated selection of something mediocre. There is a way, however, to avoid this tragedy.

Read the entire menu.

This solution is obvious, of course, but no one does it. Menus are one of few literary sources which are seldom read from start to finish. Newspapers and magazines are explored in a nonlinear fashion, but they are much larger than restaurant menus and are still read categorically.

We will often open menus to a random page and begin reading at an arbitrary location on that page. We’ll read one or two items in the nearby vicinity of the first, then skip to another page. We explore appetizers, desserts, drinks and entrées without actually reading any of the sections in full. By the time we begin to lose hope we have actually explored only a small number of the choices on the menu.

Even if you aren’t going to read all of the items, at least read the entrée section before dismissing the entire menu. Claiming that your options are exhausted before examining the entire selection is obviously quite foolish.

Read your menu like a book: start to finish.

In part II we will see how a systematic exploration of a typical restaurant menu exposes terrible inconsistencies.