Whether it’s called a tasting menu, prix fixe, omakase, prezzo fisso or degustation, one thing is clear: In a world where customization and build-your-own continues to explode in fast casual, set-price multicourse menus are taking over the fine-dining landscape. Meanwhile, a la carte menus appear to be going the way of the dinosaurs.
Just one of the operations (Le Bernardin) in the top 10 of Business Insider's recent list of America’s 50 most highly rated restaurants serves an a la carte menu. And only 16 of the list’s fine-dining power players offer no tasting menu at all. Here’s why fixed-price menus are becoming an increasingly attractive option for operators.
1. A chance to revamp...
Just last week, chef Amanda Cohen of New York City’s veteran vegetable-centric concept Dirt Candy announced the move to a tasting menu-only format that begins in early September.
“I’d been mulling it on and off for years,” Cohen says. “It’s a little bit easier to run the restaurant as a tasting menu. You know exactly how many people you’ll have every night. It doesn’t feel as much as a free-for-all.” Plus, she says, “It will change the tenor a bit, but that’s a good thing. I want a real, grown-up restaurant.”
2. ...and look forward
Some operators are rethinking the tasting menu, which has received some consumer backlash for high prices, hourslong meals and, in some cases, rigid menu options. When Chicago’s Alinea reopened last year after a massive renovation, the tasting menu was trimmed from 30 courses down to 12.
Chef Sean Brock, for example, told Eater he launched an “anti-tasting menu tasting menu” at his revamped Charleston, S.C., restaurant McCrady’s. Brock created a two-hour, 15- to 18-course tasting menu that's crafted down to the minute. He tells his servers that the goal of the experience is to take away diners’ stress for the entire meal.
3. Operational (and customer) ease
Cohen had been running an a la carte menu alongside two tasting menu options. On average, about a third of the night’s 100-130 covers opted to go the prix-fixe route. “Our servers were split in two,” she says. “And it was hard on the kitchen because we’d have tiny tickets and big tickets.” Most of Dirt Candy’s negative reviews came from a la carte diners, she says, who didn’t feel like they’d gotten a good value. The front-of-house staff felt relieved at the format change, Cohen says.
4. Cost control
The most obvious allure of the tasting menu for operators? Having a clear idea each night how much food will be served. “You also know how to staff for that,” Cohen says. “You never quite know with a la carte.” The reimagined Dirt Candy will actually lose a handful of tables, down to about 20 tables from 25—and with seating for 44 instead of 55, in favor of larger tables that give the space a “sense of luxury,” she says. She expects to turn fewer covers each night. “But I also think my check averages will be higher,” she says.
5. Chef creativity
Cohen refers to her tasting menus as “come in; let us feed you.” Dirt Candy will run an approximately five-course tasting menu for $57, as well as a The Vegetable Garden, an $83 menu that could span 15 or more courses and take about two and a half hours. She plans to change up the menu every few weeks. “It’s allowing us to have a lot more freedom in the kitchen and how we serve food,” she says. “I need a change. My cooks need a change.”
A sommelier will be creating wine pairings, with a focus on small vineyards and female winemakers, she says.
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.