A menu is more than just a list of dishes available in a restaurant. It plays a greater role than you might think in the theatre that is dining out.
Why do we eat out?
Whichever way you do the calculations, it’s definitely cheaper to eat at home, even if you are only cooking for one. If you include the price of wine in the calculation, it’s much cheaper to eat at home! So why do we eat out? It’s obviously for more than just the food...
My early memories of eating out are of Mike’s Kitchen in Port Elizabeth, my hometown at the time. We were not wealthy and eating out was a treat reserved for special occasions, normally a birthday. I remember those evenings clearly, even though they were more than two decades ago. We looked forward to each occasion and we even got dressed up.
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I’m not talking about fast food. We’d get treated to fast food a couple of times a month. There was no McDonald’s or Nando’s in those days, KFC ruled the roost then. That was about the food, a break from cooking, a distraction and of course, a treat always tastes good.
But actually sitting down in a restaurant and ordering from a menu, that was an experience. Everybody had their favourites. As a kid you want to copy your parents but there was also the whole menu of options to explore! My mother’s favourite was fillet with pepper sauce. My dad’s favourite was ribs.
Dining out is about so much more than the food, it’s about the experience. I realised that is what is bothering me about restaurants that don’t have menus because they serve just one or two items. HQ in Cape Town serves just steak and fake Burger and Lobster gives you the choice between burger and lobster!
Choosing your dish from a menu is part of the experience, part of the theatre of the evening. It can serve the role of an icebreaker if you’re dining with people you don’t know well. You can even learn a lot about someone as you discuss menu options with them; what they like, what they don’t like, things they have not tried before. Are they an adventurous eater or rather conservative? Are they vegetarian, pescetarian, ovo-lacto-pollo-tarian? These morsels of information, these titbits of insight, provide the ingredients for endless conversation.
The interaction with the waiter over the menu also adds to (or sometimes detracts from) the experience that is dining out. Listening to the specials, hearing how some of the dishes are prepared, asking about those fancy words that nobody knows the meaning of, learning about new ingredients which you have never heard of before. This is normally the most interaction one will have with the waiter in an evening and it sets the tone. It provides the opportunity to move beyond the patron and server dynamic and see the waiter for the person they are rather than just the role they are filling.
Perhaps the most important thing time with a menu does is develop your anticipation. You’ve weighed up a few options, you’ve read their descriptions several times and you’ve finally made the difficult decision. By this stage, you’ve imagined the dish, you’ve tasted it in your mind. All of this anticipation gets the tummy rumbling and the mouth watering. By the time the food arrives you can’t wait to take the first bite.
Have you ever ordered a dish only to be told that they have run out of that dish? You know how traumatic that feeling is! That’s why it’s so important for the waiter to tell patrons before they peruse the menu if there is anything that is unavailable.
While we may take choosing dishes from a menu for granted, it does add so much to the dining experience. That’s why we eat out...for the experience, to be social, to have fun and to make memories which, if we’re lucky, we will remember for decades to come. Think about that the next time a waiter hands you a menu.
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