Thursday, April 03, 2008

Reader Question: What Can You Tell From a Menu?

While I am not a restaurant critic by any means I am pretty discriminating when it comes to eating out. A reader recently asked if it was worth checking out a menu before you go to a restaurant. My answer? Menus are always worth a look and I think they tell you more than you might think. Even some of the fanciest restaurants have menus online and up-to-date so it is easier than ever to get an idea of what they serve before you go.

Some basic things to look for:

  • Does the menu change with the season? No restaurant should serve the same thing all year long unless the focus is on a cuisine doesn't really have a season, like sushi*. At the very least there should be some seasonal specials. Tomatoes just aren't tasty during the winter-even those flown in from far away- and a restaurant that serves a special entree featuring loads of fresh tomatoes in the middle of December is lacking a certain fundamental knowledge of about food. Similarly, there should be no Autumnal root vegetable dishes on the menu during Spring; a phenomenon which I have unfortunately seen on some celebrated local restaurants' menus lately. When you see such a thing, your first thought should be "why are they serving vegetables from November when good produce is finally available?" followed by "the kind of restaurant thinks that winter squash is a great idea in April is not the kind of restaurant where I want to spend my money". Living in the mid-Atlantic shortens the growing season some, but still food in season tastes better and there are plenty of clever things a restaurant can make to see you through the dark days of winter. And even if you go to a restaurant that serves this sort of out-of-season blandness, don't order it. If everyone ordered only foods that were in season and actually tasty the menu would eventually improve.

  • In the same vein, beware of restaurants that claim to use only "local" ingredients but are serving things that are out of season/not available locally. They're just trying to jump on the locavore bandwagon. We just don't have lobsters in the Chesapeake Bay.

  • Does the menu seem unusually large? Unless you are at diner, a menu should have some sort of theme or unifying characteristic. I've seen restaurants that sell a dozens of varieties of pasta, sushi, sandwiches and burgers all at the same time. How good could that sushi be? It's generally better to stick with a restaurant that has narrowed the focus a bit.

  • In a similar vein, the more items on the menu even if they are related, the more likely that they will be out of things when you visit. I find that this leads to some unexpected last minute substitutions in your order. In addition, the larger the menu, the greater the risk that the most infrequently ordered items (most likely the ones that seem out of place, like surf and turf at a Thai restaurant that are put there for picky eater and seldom ordered or the very most expensive items at a moderately priced restaurant) are poorly prepared or not very fresh.

  • Is the drink menu larger and more elaborate than the food menu? Maybe the focus isn't on good food.

  • This may seem too basic to mention, but when you look at the menu, make sure there is something you like on it. I've been out with people who don't eat raw fish but then suggested an all-raw sushi bar for dinner. They didn't know that's what the restaurant was, but a quick peek at the menu could have solved that problem before we were seated and ready to order.

Okay, so you might review the menu get to the restaurant and it still might not be up to par, but I've avoided some restaurants that I later heard were really dreadful, just by reading the menu. There's nothing worse than spending a lot of money at a restaurant that serves flavorless, out of season food.

*Or is fast food but I am really talking about actual, sit-down restaurants here.