Menus And The People Who Write Them Badly

Menus And The People Who Write Them Badly
Flickr user othermaciej under Creative Commons

Why is it so hard to find properly written menus? Some are too concise and offer no details; others can't shut up. Below are twelve helpful hints for people doing menu writing.

Menus And The People Who Write Them Badly
Flickr user cosmic_spanner under Creative Commons

1. Translate them, and translate them well.

Everyone has a funny story about a mis-translated menu. Stir-fried Wikipedia, side of vegetarians, meat in colored sauce; the list goes on. If English is not your first language (in which case it's unlikely you're reading this), hire a native speaker to translate your menu. Don't, for heaven's sake, use an online translation tool.

The flip side of this is not wielding another language--particularly French or Italian--as a club. It's one thing to talk about sole bonne femme (though it would be nice to have a footnote as to its contents) or pappardelle al ragù bolognese, but if you're talking about insalata tagliuzzata on a menu in Los Angeles, you're probably just being stuck up.

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2. Don't use another language unless you know how.

It's maddening enough to have to go back into the archives of the mind and remember the makeup of sauce charcutière, but when restaurants mistranslate the dish INTO the foreign language, it's even worse. Honestly, if you can't keep mesclun and mescaline separate, just call the salad "mixed greens".

3. Post them--with prices--on your restaurant's website.

I hate to say it, but I'm a price-conscious diner. Unless I'm dining on OC Weekly's extremely generous expense account for freelancers, I want to know what sort of prices I'm looking at when I'm reading your website, particularly if I'm in an unfamiliar city. I have no idea how much dinner costs in Memphis or Syracuse, and sites like Yelp and Chowhound are no help, because "cheap" and "expensive" are so subjective.

If your prices change too often to keep up with the website, try and give a range--or get yourself a content management system that allows your staff to put in the data in a user-friendly manner. (Why, yes, I am a professional geek!)

The executive summary is nice, but whom are they quoting?
The executive summary is nice, but whom are they quoting?
Flickr user niallkennedy under Creative Commons

4. Verbal diarrhoea isn't any more fun than the regular kind.

There's such a thing as too much detail. I don't need to know who ripened the cheese on your plate; if I'm so concerned about the proper handling of your cheese post-addition of rennet, I will ask. If you're an Alice Watersian locavore, try to keep the origins restricted to just the principal components of the dish; few people care that the cracked black pepper was from Dubondubondubonnet Farms in Pasco, Washington.

If you've absolutely got to list a catalogue, at least give the diners the courtesy of an executive summary in bold font as the first item; include all the gratuitous culinary onanism in standard print or italics below.

5. One menu is plenty, thanks.

I went to a Vietnamese restaurant a while back that had four menus: the standard menu, the vegetarian menu, the tea list and the alcohol list. Trying to juggle all four was unbelievably frustrating, and we sounded and looked like drunken sots trying to reach over each other for menus. Certainly, wine lists are normally kept separate, but all the food that's going to be ordered together ought to be presented in one folder.

6. One menu per diner, however, is required.

If your host or hostess is seating a six-top and plunks five menus down, he or she ought to be lectured soundly and forced to do penance in the back of the walk-in. One menu per diner is the rule, and this goes for specials menus as well. It just avoids the embarrassing "you first, no you first" dance, which gets the table off to an irritated start.

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