There's more to a menu than meets the eye

By Peter Calder

Spelling errors apart, there’s more to a restaurant’s menu than meets the eye, writes Peter Calder.
Treat the menu with respect, as a document designed to persuade as much as to inform. Photo / iStock
Treat the menu with respect, as a document designed to persuade as much as to inform. Photo / iStock

It starts before you've even settled in - in some places before you have even sat down - with The Water Question. "Will we be starting with still or sparkling water this evening?"

Note that "we", which is trying to establish a sense that you and the person serving you are on the same team. You're not. The fact is that, as a customer in a restaurant, you are less an honoured guest than what a con artist calls a mark. The aim of the game is to separate you from your money.

This is nowhere more obvious than in the none-too-subtle upselling of liquor by the practice - now epidemic here - of topping up diners' wine glasses so they will order another bottle. The reason is plain: the profit margin on food is so lousy - it can be as little as a dollar on a $30 main dish - that restaurateurs rely on liquor sales to keep afloat. That's why in some restaurants your waitress will give you a drinks list, but no menu, and vanish for a few moments in the hope that you'll order one of those high-margin cocktails called Sex on the Beach.

A thoughtful restaurateur will take some trouble over the composition of the menu too, although many, if not most, restaurateurs here don't even take the trouble to consult a dictionary when they compile the menu, happily offering proscuitto, mescalin, margarita (the pizza), Ceasar (the salad), brocolli and rotissiere chicken. I have seldom encountered such slovenliness in the UK or even in Europe where the English menu is in the management's second language.

But, sometimes at least, great care is taken with the choice of words. Just ask Dan Jurafsky, a professor at Stanford University in California in what is called computational linguistics.

He had a bunch of his doctoral students analyse 6500 menus and found that the length of a menu item's description bore a direct relationship to its cost: for every additional letter in that sentence, the price went up by a dollar.

No less important than word length was vocabulary: words like "exotic" and "spices" put upward pressure on prices. But if the menu contained the adjectives "ripe", "fresh" and "real", you were likely in a cheaper, try-hard sort of place. A decent restaurant's customers don't need to be reassured that the fruit is ripe, the salad is fresh and the maple syrup real; they take it for granted.

Quite whether Jurafsky's findings transpose to this country is a matter for debate. A decade ago, I would marvel at the purple prose in menus - my default spoof was that the fish was "poached in virgins' tears" - but the language of menus has become sleeker by the year.

For a while, the style was laconic to a fault. One of the top restaurants in town has "roast cauliflower, yeast & chickpea" or "short rib, black garlic, parsnip skin & mustard". The place on the North Shore that now offers "buffalo mozzarella curds, smoky egg plant, dukkah & extra virgin olive oil" would, when it opened, have worded it "mozzarella, eggplant, dukkah, oil" though a little more detail is let slip now.

By contrast, a well-known steak house offers eye fillet "nurtured" in "our special" marinade and "smothered" in sauce. The hollandaise is "gentle". A place that describes itself as the country's "oldest and original" chain serves shrimps "drizzled with [our] classic seafood dressing" on "fresh, crisp salad leaves". These are not the linguistic markers of high-brow aspirations.

More expensive places are fond of foreign words - the menu will refer to "saucisson" because "sausage" is what common people say; "flank steak" will be a "bavette". It may be simple snobbishness, but intimidation can also be good for business. A diner who cannot understand everything may be inclined to surrender control to the waiter rather than be thought a fool.

And in recent years, there has been greater emphasis on provenance ("Wakanui beef") and gathering process ("line-caught snapper") that amounts to more than the flim-flammery of "hand-picked tomatoes".

Pricing tells you plenty about a restaurant, too. I can still remember going to the most expensive restaurant in town in the 1970s and gulping when I saw the prices written out ("twenty-three dollars"). It intimidated the hell out of me, although Jurafsky says that putting it in words softens the impact. You don't see it now, but many menus these days drop the dollar signs, and the removal of final zeroes is also intended to distract the eye. A price tag of 34.5 does not stand out as boldly as one of 34.50, because our eyes are used to two digits in the cents column.

Menu layout is something of a science, though the findings keep changing. Outlier ideas such as putting an expensive item at a top corner or emphasising dishes with a good profit margin by putting them in larger type and in a box have been placed in question by recent research showing that diners tend to read menus like a book - top to bottom and left to right. The idea that there was a sweet spot halfway down the right-hand page is falling out of favour.

But diners, like all customers, would still be wise to read the fine print and the non-verbal cues in the menu. Treat it with respect, as a document designed to persuade as much as to inform - though if they haven't even had it proofread, you can probably let your guard down a little.

Peter Calder is the restaurant reviewer for the Herald on Sunday.

- Canvas

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