Teddy and the Bully Bar in downtown Washington is a tribute to the nation’s naturalist 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, a theme supported by fanciful faux taxidermy and a wall created from nearly 500 miniature Mount Rushmores. As at so many restaurants, servers initiate meals with a monologue long enough to rival an inaugural address.
Small plates are the drill, staff members tell you. Everyone should consider ordering two to three dishes, they advise. And, by the way, the pacing is up to us.
“We’re a free-flowing kitchen,” says my waiter. “The food comes out as it’s ready.” We pause to digest the information, and then he says, “I’ll try to course it out for you,” as if we should be grateful for the favor.
Then there’s the menu itself, divided into eight categories. “Foraged” is mostly vegetables. “Grains” gathers pastas. “Coast & Plains” has me humming “America the Beautiful” as I read about fried chicken and Maine mussels. The waiter tells us the “more substantial” dishes are under “Square Deal Plates.” Those are what we used to call main courses.
Is anyone else hungry for the good old days? Not so long ago, a diner would go to a restaurant and select an appetizer and an entree from lists labeled, quaintly, “appetizers” and “entrees.” Maybe something sweet, too, from a menu headlined “desserts.” The dishes would come out in exactly the sequence in which the orders were placed, with (hopefully) appropriate pauses in between. And you had some idea of how much a meal would cost.
Blame it on the small-plates movement, but that style of dining is as rare as a smoking section now, at least among the region’s buzzier establishments. Now, a dizzying array of categories, portion sizes and prices practically guarantees an aftertaste of uncertainty for restaurant goers.
It doesn’t take VIP status on OpenTable to sample the trend.
At the Fainting Goat on U Street NW, the menu categories — “Nibble,” “Chomp” and “Feed,” among others — all but make chewing sounds. Without direction, a diner is unsure if “Graze” means bigger than “Nibble” and how “Chomp” differs from “Feed.”
Translation, please? Chef Nathan Beauchamp says nibbles are three to four pieces of hors d’oeuvres (“not quite an appetizer”), and “graze” equates to an appetizer. “Chomp” started as a list of sandwiches and evolved to include pastas and “light entrees,” while “Feed” designates main courses. I feel as if I need a cheat sheet, but isn’t that what a menu used to be? A frustrated dining companion puts it this way: “If you have to explain how the menu works, then perhaps the menu isn’t working.”
Roofers Union, the Adams Morgan small-plates restaurant, displays a fondness for alliteration on its menu, a collection of “Snacks” followed by items that are “Stuffed, “Stacked” or “Simple.” The upshot: Stuffed and stacked choices are mostly sandwiches. “Simple” embraces beer-steamed mussels and steak frites.
Reminding diners that traditional portion sizes are becoming a thing of the past, servers at the pan-Latin Tico on 14th Street NW suggest three to four small plates per person, then divvying up the spread. Or, as one waiter told me, “Sharing is caring.” Patrons of Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan now sit down to eight menu categories, a move that inspired the owners to tack on a note to guests explaining how to mix and match (or not). At José Andrés’s Jaleo downtown, arguably the birthplace of the U.S. small-plates trend more than 20 years ago, the menu divisions include “Buen Provecho!,” “Jose’s Way” and “Jose Makes Large Plates Too.”
These days, the five scariest words out of a waiter’s mouth are “Have you been here before?” A shake of the head at some restaurants can be followed by a sermon of biblical proportions. The first time I went to Del Campo, the South American restaurant where much of the food is infused with smoke, the waiter spent so long explaining the menu that I was tempted to ask him to pull up a chair so he wouldn’t have to stand — and we wouldn’t have to crane our necks.
Restaurant observers say over-embellishment and quirky dish categories are ways for chefs to build their brands and distinguish their product from the competition. Every menu becomes an exercise in creative writing, especially when a small-plates concept leaves the categories up for grabs. As dining away from home has become more casual, old ways of doing business are being tossed out. Up-selling dishes, in which servers highlight the priciest items, and talking up the head chef are being phased out in favor of storytelling and explaining the origins of ingredients.
Some waiters may be holding you hostage with all that menu exposition for another reason. An “in-your-face approach to guests” has its rewards for staffers, says Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. His findings suggest that an extra minute spent with a table converts into another dollar on a server’s tip.
The problem is, epic explanations and “free-flowing” kitchens put the restaurant’s desires ahead of the customer’s. Eating an appetizer of several bites followed by an entree more or less double the size feels organized; having dishes randomly make their way to the table robs the diner of control of his meal and ultimately diminishes the experience. True story: At Parts & Labor in Baltimore, where dishes are served “as they’re cooked,” my steak showed up one night ahead of even the bread basket.
Vague menu headings leave diners wondering how much food is really on the horizon. At Fainting Goat, for instance, the cheese-filled arancini and duck meatballs come three pieces per “Nibble.” Three of anything can be tough to split in half or share if there are two or four diners, however. And forget knowing how much of a workout your debit card will get when your companions each order four or five dishes, some smaller and some bigger, some shared and some not. Appetites vary. The trend can be a nightmare for diners who want to pay only for the calories they’ve personally dispatched.
When confronted with confusing menus, some diners simply defer to what they know or what they ate the last time. Some don’t like to read lists and just want to know what’s good, others “read and study everything,” some lap up the latest dining fashions, and still others see restaurants as mostly social occasions, says Greg Rapp, a menu engineer based in California.
The most helpful menus flag the flavors of a dish, allowing diners to mentally taste them. Or at least size them up. Patrons who don’t want to read through the nearly 40 choices at Tico have the option of telling the staff how hungry they are and leaving the decisions up to the kitchen. The options are “Kind of Hungry” for $35, “Forgot to Eat Lunch” for $55 and “Full On Tico Experience” for $85. In response, chef George Rodrigues sends out seven, nine or 11 dishes, respectively.
Evidence suggests diners don’t want too many choices. Aaron Allen, a global restaurant consultant, points to McDonald’s, where the menu has swollen over the years to more than 100 items — and where just five choices account for 40 percent of the chain’s sales. Especially in pressure-cooker places such as Washington, sometimes the last thing a worker bee tethered to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and (oh, yeah) texts wants to do is make another decision.
As Allen points out, the word “restaurant” comes from the French restaurer, or restore — hardly the feeling that washes over some of us when we find ourselves at the mercy of a menu (or server) that goes on like a Randy Travis song: forever and ever, amen.
Perhaps the independent restaurants can take a cue from the fast-casual chains, which have been reducing the number of items on their menus for years. Or maybe I should be careful what I wish for.
At the very top of the price scale, some restaurants have gone to the other extreme and don’t let diners see a menu, at least not until meal’s end. Among the withholders is the modernist Minibar by José Andrés in Penn Quarter, which likes to keep its audience in suspense as they segue from one edible surprise to the next, for a total of 20 or so courses. Veteran Minibar chef Ruben Garcia compares handing diners a menu at the start of a meal to giving away the end of a movie that someone just started watching. When presented at the end, it’s a memento.
In Dupont Circle, the contemporary Greek restaurant Komi goes even further. A verbal explanation of dinner is followed by a flurry of a dozen or so dishes — but, unless you ask, not a word to remember them by afterwards.
Sietsema answers questions from readers every Wednesday at 11 a.m. at live.washingtonpost.com. Coming this Sunday in The Washington Post Magazine: The Fall Dining Guide, featuring his 10 top restaurants and 27 other favorites.