The luscious feast described on a restaurant menu may have little resemblence to the meal that is delivered to your table.
"Fresh golden brown shrimp" with "fresh garden salad" and "home-made French fries" might translate to frozen shrimp accompanied by limp salad and frozen processed fries. If you ordered fresh ground coffee with cream, a white substance made up of a long list of unfamiliar ingredients could be afloat in your tinned coffee.
Not only is it confusing and disappointing, but in Virginia, the restauranteur is liable for such priceless prose if it's inaccurate, according to the 1977 Virginia Consumer Protection Act. With the growing national concern over accuracy in menus, Arlington's Environmental Health Bureau has established an accuracy-in-menu consultation service for restaurant owners and managers to help them find out if their menus are accurate.
Clark Cox, director of the Arlington Environmental Health Bureau, gives Arlington's approximately 300 full-service restaurants and 400 other food service facilities the benefit of the doubt on faulty menu descriptions.
"We feel like most of the inaccuracies that occure are unintentional," he said. It's more q uestion of "a little over-freedom in choice of words.
"Somebody uses the (inaccurate) language to dress up the menu and make it read better . . . This happens quite often," Cox said. A hamburger at "nearly a quarter of a pound - what does that mean?" Or the menu might advertise "homemade beef stew when, in fact, it comes out of a can. It sounds more appetizing. It make the menu look better and read better."
Or maybe the restaurant did start out serving real butter and then went over to oleo without cchanging the menu.
In other cases of wanton adjectives or out-and-out faulty statements on menus, Cox said, the restauranteur might merely be repeating an inaccuracy passed on by the supplier. In the case of one restaurant owner who has already taken advantage of the free consultation service, Cox said, the man was surprised to learn that the "maple syrup" advertised on his menu was not even a remote cousin of the processed sap of the Acer saccharum. On the man's invoices it said "maple syrup," but in the bottle there was s sugar-based syrup.
The Environmental Health Bureau not yet making regular inspection restaurants to make sure the menus are not misleading because they don't have the authority, Cox said. But he anticipates that "somewhere that enforcement is going to be delegated down." The state Attorney General's Office is currently the enforcement agent of the truth-in-menu provision, Cox said, and diner's complaints - few or none so far - are forwarded there. But due to staff shortages, that office asked local bureaus for help.
"We're trying to make this service available now so that corrections can be made," Cox said. "We're trying to encourage the food establishment in Arlington to review their menus" and get rid of misleading "puffery in a menu." If this gentle prodding doesn't improve the situation, Cox said, "We may see if there's a better direction to go in."
Restauranteurs can request help in checking the accuracies of their menus and consumers can voice their concerns about possible inaccuracies by calling the Environmental Health Bureau at 558-2661. When consumer complaints are received, Cox said, "We will go and discuss the problem with the operator." Any unresolved complaints will be turned over to the Attorney General's Office.
Lucien Birkler, a co-owner of Chalet de la Paix at 4506 Lee Highway in Arlington, said he thinks that "a lot of restaurants will misrepresent" the food they serve and that the accuracy-in-menu requirement is "absolutely" fair. "We have nothing to lose," he said. "We're an expensive restaurant and we use expensive products." He's not fond of the idea of less expensive places advertising dinners similar in sound to his own at a fractionof the price when they use cheaper ingredients.
Frank Sarris, general manager of Tom Sarris' Orleans House at 1213 Wilson Blvd., said, "I'm not too familiar with the law itself," but he'd be interested in learning more from the Environmental Health Bureau. Few adjectives are used on Orleans' House menus, Sarris said, because "we just never thought about it." But if the bureau advised changes in their menu, Sarris said, "I don't think it would be much of an expense for us."
At the Alpine Restaurant, 4770 Lee Hwy., co-owner Giuseppe Galiarde said enforcement of the law could "cause us a little problem," because "sometimes you can't find fresh fish" and the menu would have to be reworded. "It's going to be a common thing for everyone," he said. "We got to go with it and that's it." He hastened to say that dishes described as "fresh" on the Alpine's menu are fresh, and that when he eats out, he doesn't want frozen fish served to him as fresh.