Monday, October 6, 2014

Rant: Menu Secrets & Sacrificing Choice

You might assume that if you dine at an expensive restaurant, you'll have lots of choices, that all of your money means they will cater to your whims. However, that is actually not the case for most expensive restaurants. In fact, it is the much less expensive restaurants which provide diners with the most choices and greatest control. It seems counter intuitive but it is reality.

As I mentioned last Monday, I've been immersed in a fascinating new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. The book explains and expounds upon various food-related words, as well as examining the role of words in everything from menus to restaurant reviews. It is part history and science, psychology and etymology. If you love food, it is an excellent read, one which will intrigue and interest you, as well as make you think of food in different ways. I highly recommend this book and I'm back discussing issues raised in the book.

In one of the chapters, How To Read A Menu, Jurafsky explores some linguistic issues with restaurant menus, also analyzing the differences in menus due to the price of the restaurant. For example, more expensive restaurant menus use longer and fancier words, such as "decaffeinated, accompaniments, complements, traditionally, specifications, preparation, overflowing, magnificent, inspiration, exquisitely, and tenderness."  Less expensive restaurants use abbreviated or shorter words for much of the same descriptions, like "decaf instead of decaffeinated, sides instead of accompaniments or complements."

That difference might seem largely irrelevant but those longer words actually translate into higher prices! "Every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 18 cents in the price of that dish!" In addition, the use of the words "exotic" and "spices" also raise the price of the dish. In contrast, less expensive restaurants use certain adjectives, which actually are associated with lower prices. For example, vague terms like "delicious, tasty, or terrific" generally indicate a dish that costs about 9% less than average. Other adjectives, like "rich, chunky, or zesty"  generally indicate a dish that costs about 2% less than average.

The term "real" is rarely used on menus at expensive restaurants. With other restaurants, the most common uses of that term varies dependent on their price level. Cheap restaurants will mention real whipped cream, mashed potatoes and bacon while moderately priced restaurants more often mention real crab and maple syrup. As an aside, around the turn of the 20th century, menus tended to mention "real" in the context of beer and turtles, as their was plenty of fake beer and turtle meat being used in restaurants. It should also be mentioned that expensive restaurants reference the origin of their ingredients over 15 times more than less expensive restaurants.

Lack of choice is also a common element of menus at expensive restaurants. On average, they have half as many dishes as less expensive restaurants. They are also three times less likely to mention "diner's choice"in any way. Less expensive restaurants often mention "your choice" or "your way," giving diners even more choices. At expensive restaurants, what is more important is the chef's choices. Diners may cede control to the chef, eating whatever the chef decides to send out.  At some expensive restaurants, there is not even a written menu. You may have no choice at all, or only very limited options.

Why do we pay more but then give up control? Shouldn't we have more options because we are willing to pay so much? I think that at expensive restaurants, we are paying for more than just the food. We are paying for an experience, paying for the knowledge and expertise of the chef. We place ourselves in the hands of an expert, the chef, and allow him to guide our meal. We have trust in the chef and his cuisine. With less expensive restaurants, and more ordinary food, diners feel more confident about being able to order. It is more familiar to them and they see less need to rely on the chef's expertise.

Why are you willing to sacrifice your choice when dining at an expensive restaurant?


jkommelb said...

Personally, I actually enjoy that aspect of high-end restaurants; for me, letting the chef showcase their talents and their tastes is fun, and often exposes me to things I would not ordinarily experience.

Unknown said...

Absolutely. I think there is a trend in our society to think of ourselves as specialists in every damn thing, including food. I trust a chef to give me something delicious and I do not need to decide for myself what vegetables or wine would go better. Why not just give ourselves over to the experience?

Sorry for the rant!

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks for your comments. Glad to hear you enjoy such experiences too.

Richard Auffrey said...

No apologies needed at all. Glad to hear your thoughts on this matter. And I agree with you as well.