What can writers learn from menus?

I like eating out. But I find restaurants are among the worst when it comes to clear communication. For example, I wrote an article ‘Why are restaurant websites so awful?’ a while ago.  (The glorious exception is Monmouth Coffee.)

Now, I have noticed a trend for restaurants to pack menus with words that no diner could possibly understand. In some cases, this is because they are using traditional foreign words and they provide a glossary. This is the case at Boca Di Lupo. It is part of the adventure and part of the fun and I enjoyed my meal there all the more because of it.

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The other version is where chefs use language to deliberately obscure what they are cooking. Sometimes this is a faddy, fashionable thing, like the trend a while ago to serve everything with an ‘air’ of flavoured foam. If you didn’t know about the trend, you didn’t know what you were getting.

But earlier this year I ate at a restaurant called Ubuntu in Napa. It has a Michelin star, serves veggie food and has a name that means ‘Freedom’ in Swahili and will please geeks everywhere.

But the menu was so arcane that it was impossible to get any sense of what I was ordering. Even after the waitress patiently explained everything. It turns out that the chef actually made up a lot of words, Humpty-Dumpty style. One explanation stuck in my mind: “it’s a deconstructed borsht.” I really shouldn’t need a degree in post-modernism and Russian literature to order a meal. (And that was the explanation of the menu item!)

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Here is the menu itself. Butis ‘Midnight moon’ an ingredient or an instruction or just a flight of fancy. Why is ‘gravy’ in inverted commas? What is ‘kraut ash’?

My view is that this is one short step away from being an amazing menu with poetry and delight. The missing step is the information that takes the reader on a journey from excitement to understanding. Instead, this menu is a thinly-disguised exercise in one-upmanship.

How do you communicate with your customers? Do you take them on a journey or do you leave them confused? What happens in restaurants also happens in marketing. Think about it.

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3 Responses to What can writers learn from menus?

  1. Sara (Greco) Goas July 21, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    Ha! My husband complains about this sort of thing all the time. He especially gets angry at restaurant websites…he’s a web designer himself, so he can’t stand websites that are too loud, flashy, or confusing to navigate.

    I watch a lot of cooking shows, so deconstructed borsht actually makes some sense to me…pretty sure I saw exactly that on Top Chef last year…

  2. Will Blackstock September 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    I’ve actually noticed a backlash against this sort of thing in the restaurants near my office. Nothing is “lovingly drizzled” over anything else. Instead you get minimalist descriptions like:

    “Rabbit. Girolles. Onion.”

    Ok, so you have to know what “girolles” are, but otherwise it’s incredibly simple. And I think just reading the base ingredients actually adds to the anticipation of the meal to come. I suppose it’s a bit of a throwback to simpler foods. I can certainly imagine “Ham. Egg. Chips.” in a particularly silly gastropub.

    I think we can blame menu hyperbole on Marks & Spencer for their “This is not just overlong, pretentious descriptions of expensive food, this is M&S food”. The sooner more places take their cue from the restaurants on Bermondsey St., the better.

  3. Elizabeth Mueller December 13, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    Oh yes, businesses hire professional copywriters to advertise their products on menus, magazines, anything that is an ad! It’s challenging, yet fun, to copywrite Darkspell, my YA Paranormal romance. I’d need to find different angles to make it sound appealing in every way possible! ;)

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