In Defense of Short Menus

By Matthew Yglesias

Mike Tomasky, just back from France, offers a list of complaints against the Paris restaurant scene. I can’t really comment on most of it since I haven’t been there in eight years, but his complaint against short French menus I just flat-out disagree with:

First, the menus are really limited. There’s a steak, a piece of veal, a chicken, maybe a cut of lamb. Two fishes. That’s it. I’m aware that this is the tradition. But some traditions are bad. It’s not too much to ask that there be several choices on a menu.

I don’t really think tradition is the issue here. A brief menu is a good idea. As a diner, there’s nothing I like less than walking into an unfamiliar restaurant only to be confronted with a giant array of choices. I’ve never eaten here before, how on earth should I know what it’d be good to order? It’s much better to see a chef prepare a relatively small number of dishes that he really stands behind. Tons of choice, to me, indicates that you’re preparing food with a client-base in mind that doesn’t really care about food and would rather eat “what they want to eat” rather than something good. I want something good! And I want a staff that’s cooking for people who want something good.

12 responses to “In Defense of Short Menus

  1. Also, a short menu means limited stock and therefore (one hopes) fresh stuf on your plate!

  2. There is an excellent restaurant near my house that has between 12 and 20 items on the menu at any given time. That includes appetizers, small courses, and main courses. And the menu changes every 2 to 4 weeks. The food and atmosphere is excellent and yet if I had a dime for the amount of times I’ve seen bloggers or others bitch about the number of items on the menu or the lack of “specials” I could easily afford a plane trip to New York and a dinner at Pe Se for two.

  3. I second Glauke. Whenever I see a menu longer than a page or two, I assume that many of the ingredients are frozen and therefore not very good.

  4. It is unfortunate when you don’t eat meat. I’ve skipped eating at several places because the short, rotating menus always contain meat entrees, and no, I don’t want a salad for dinner. But oh, these are the choices we make and I have learned to live with it.
    But overall, having a shorter menu is something I can agree with. That means everything should be good and who doesn’t want that?

  5. It’s two different views of the relationship between the diner and the kitchen. The “long menu” view is that the desire, the whim of the diner is paramount and the function of the kitchen is to satisfy it. The diner is an aristocrat; the chef a servant. The “short menu” view is that the chef is in some sense an artist and that the diner is privileged to be permitted to experience another example of the chef’s art.

  6. I agree completely with the short menu. This problem is the most acute at Chinese restaurants in America. Even the really good ones stuff their menus to the gills with awful filler. Someone who knows the restaurant can dodge the duds, but at a new place you can struggle. I would also note that the short menu isn’t necessaraly aristocratic. It can simply be the restaurant knowing its limits. Down market El Pollo Rico near Virginia Sq. only serves one thing–chicken. And they do it right. Your options are only how much chicken you want. If they started adding other things I would be worried.

  7. This presents an interesting behavioral economic issue, the classical economist would argue that more choices are a good thing and one can simply ignore the choices that don’t appeal to them, but in fact, too many choices can be confusing, consider the McDonald’s menu compared to In-N-Out’s.
    Also, more menu options can lead diners to menu traps (see: http://nudges.wordpress.com/2008/11/26/menu-design-tricks-to-get-you-to-spend-more/)

    However, I do have a problem with his original thesis. I spent the past summer in France, and I didn’t really notice the French menus being smaller. Is there any quantitative evidence to that effect?
    I’d be interested in studying this

  8. I consider a long menu at a French or American restaurant to be a red flag. If they’re trying to do too much, chances are they won’t do anything well.

  9. very informative post to read.

  10. Not only are the ingredients fresher, there’s less need for a massive kitchen staff — which, in turn, means that you’re probably getting better value. I recently went to a restaurant in Paris where the chef was the only one in the kitchen. The ONLY person touching the food. One guy. And it was a phenomenal meal, which had three to four choices per course. And far and away the cheapest great meal I’ve ever eaten.

  11. And there’s no reason why I shouldn’t give the place a plug . . . It was call Le Timbre, on a small street off Boulevard Raspail, near Luxembourg Gardens.

  12. C.S.–I had a similar experience in Montreal. Walked into a restaurant (whose name I forget, alas–it’s on Duluth Est b/t St. Laurent and St. Denis, north side of the street), the menu had three or four starters, three or four mains, and two desserts on offer. One man in the kitchen, one woman in the front (I presume they were married). One of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten ensued. (Oh, and the dessert I had was, like, vanilla ice cream spiked with bourbon. A lot of bourbon. But somehow it tasted awesome, and it had the added benefit of giving me one hell of a buzz.)

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