The Menu Wall

I had a friend in college who always ordered steak or a hamburger when we went out to eat. It didn’t matter what type of restaurant we visited, if these options were available, then they were the ones ordered. If we happened to be at a place where such options weren’t typically available, then the menu item that seemed least exotic was chosen. On more than one occasions, requests were made to the kitchen to see if steak and/or hamburger could be obtained.

As I get older, I find this sort of approach to food confusing. It’s akin to a Buddhist trying to explain their religion to a Christian. Logically I understand that there are people out there who don’t have an ounce of curiosity about cuisine, but such an outlook is simply not part of my genetic makeup. To NOT try something a new dish, especially when said dish has been tried and tested by countless others is like asking me to not breathe.

In looking at a menu, I am typically drawn to two types of items.

  1. Specials of the day
  2. Items that seem out of place on the menu

Granted, some restaurants have specials just to get rid of certain food products, or because they know that a certain dish sells better when it’s not offered that often. And sometimes odd menu items are their because the owner/chef can manage their menu effectively. But sometimes these are ways that a dish that is special to the owner or chef can find its way onto the menu. This was their one way to get that special dish served.

Two examples:

- A teriyaki restaurant that my co-workers and I frequent has kimchi on their menu board. The first time I noticed this, I picked up an order.
- A Greek restaurant that is a favorite of mine had kreatopita on their menu. Having never tried this dish before, I ordered it. It turned out to be this wonderful meat pie, with rich, savory ground lamb mixed with bechamel sauce and peas, then topped with filo.

One of the results of both of these orders is that the owner of the place came out to see who in the heck ordered these dishes. The teriyaki owner came out because she said she had to see who would order her kimchi, because it was seemingly a rare event. She then commented about how the recipe was her grandmother’s and that she put it on the menu because she ate it several times a week, because it made you healthy.

The owner of the Greek place also came out to see who ordered his special dish, and then went into great detail about the ingredients he used, demonstrating just how proud he was of his meal.

Aside from getting a great meal at both of these places, there was an additional value to be had here. There’s a joy to be had in listening to a chef or owner talk about their food and what it means to them. It opens up the dining experience that much more, and imbues their dishes with a personalization that can be lost at times at restaurants. Yes, the menu is the critical part of the restaurant, but it comes at a bit of a cost. The menu can act as a wall between the staff and the consumer. If you know where to look, there are times when it brings you something truly special. This is something you cannot get if you only order steak or hamburger.