Why do most restaurants provide two food menus to a couple, but only one drink/cocktail menu?
From just about every perspective, it makes little sense to hand the table only one beverage menu, right? First, consider the wasted time: Even if each diner at a four-top takes only two to three minutes to review the drink options, this passing-of-the-menu ceremony would chew up eight to 12 minutes before a single beverage is ordered. The process, in turn, extends the amount of time customers spend on their meal and perhaps limits the number of seatings per night at the table. That sounds like lost revenue to me.
Second, consider the wasted time, Part 2: After spending roughly 10 minutes just to order a drink, our imaginary four-top then has to wait for the cocktails to be prepared and served. It could be 20 minutes, or longer, from the time they sit down to the moment they press a drink to their lips. That’s a lot of down time, which, potentially, bites into the mealtime minutes available to order a second or third drink. Again, there’s the possibility of lost revenue.
Third, consider the stress that one menu places on customers. “The pressure you’re going to feel, knowing that you’ve got to pass that thing around to a bunch of other people … is going to make you want to make a decision quicker than you need or should,” says Jeremiah Langhorne, chef and owner of the Dabney, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Blagden Alley.
So why do restaurants hand out only one drinks menu per table (or sometimes one menu per two diners)? As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated.
To properly answer this question, I think we need to differentiate between fine-dining restaurants and just about everyone else. The expectations are so much higher at the upper levels of dining, and the managers and owners of such places are communicating with diners through every element inside their walls, including the cocktail menus. Take, for example, the beverage menu at Kith and Kin on the Wharf. It’s a custom-made, leather binder that runs about $40 per menu to produce, says Kwame Onwuachi, the James Beard Award winning chef behind Kith and Kin.
“It’s bound, so it’s expensive, and they definitely go missing,” says Onwuachi. “People just take them as souvenirs.”
How often do people steal them?
Onwuachi initially says he doesn’t know but then turns away from his cellphone to ask the dining room manager. I can hear the answer before Onwuachi even repeats it: “All the time,” the manager sighs.
But even at more casual restaurants, those without leather-bound beverage menus, the costs can add up, says Rose Previte, owner of Compass Rose and Maydan in the District. Printing costs are not cheap, and restaurants can burn through a lot of menus, even when customers are not stealing them. So limiting the number of menus can be an economic and environmental decision, Previte says.
“We try to use as little paper as possible, honestly,” she says. “We do care about the Earth. We also care about printing costs and ink, and it’s all very expensive. And with more menus on the table, people start to use them as place mats. Even if you try to get them back, it doesn’t always work. Then, before you know it, they’re dirty and you’re throwing them away and reprinting the next day.”
Previte says her printing costs for new menus at Maydan can run $900 over a single, admittedly print-heavy billing period. Some days, if managers learn late in the afternoon that they’re short of menus, Previte even has to pay a courier to get new ones to the restaurant, stat. “Sometimes the courier will take food in exchange for payment,” she says.
But as Adam Bernbach, the veteran mixologist and bar director for Estadio, points out, if you print more menus, one for each customer, you can possibly sell more drinks. “And more drinks,” he adds, “equal greater sales.” Those sales can then offset your costs, such as printing.
To Bernbach’s way of thinking, the single beverage menu is a holdover over from a previous era — a time before the craft cocktail and craft beer movements — when the drinking options were limited and diners didn’t really need to review a long list to know what they wanted to drink. But in the past decade or two, things have changed dramatically.
“There was a huge renaissance in pretty much every alcoholic beverage category in the past 20 years,” Bernbach says. “I’m sure guest expertise started to spark around then. Or guest interest and expertise both.”
I didn’t exactly conduct a survey for Josh’s question. But of the four people contacted for this story, three said they either include the drinks on the flip side of their menus or offer a clipboard, with both food and beverage selections, to every diner. In other words, the momentum seems to be shifting toward the very thing that Josh wants, namely a cocktail menu of his very own.