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Creative menu writing

Your new menu sports spiffy graphics, an eye-catching layout and an inventive roster of dishes. But have you paid any attention to the names of the menu categories?

If the headings “appetizers,” “entrees” and “sides” are starting to sound a tad boring, maybe it’s time for a change. Then again, just how clever should you get with the lingo? Consultant Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer based in Palm Springs, California, critiques some variations on the traditional menu nomenclature.    

Atrio
Miami, Florida
The rationale: “Our menu headings evoke the moods that I want guests to experience when they’re dining at Atrio,” says chef de cuisine Michael Gilligan.

The critique: “Words like ‘piquant’ and ‘robust’ sound very tempting,” says Rapp. “They encourage diners to delve into the menu and read all the selections. To add value to the entrees, I would write ‘includes vegetable, potato, etc.’ under each heading.”

Cool & Crisp
Ceviche “Martini” $15
Ginger Chicken Breast Summer Roll $11

Bold & Warm
Baked Crab Cake $12
Duck Confit and Vegetable Spring Roll $12

Piquant & Sensuous
Broiled Miso Marinated Black Cod $24
Bamboo Box Steamed Lemon Sole $28
Pan Seared Tasmanian Salmon $24

Robust & Savory
Rum and Pepper Glazed Filet Mignon $34
Grass Fed Organic Veal Chop $30
Baked Australian Lamb Loin $29

District
New York City
The rationale: “The menu names give guests the freedom to have two appetizers at lunch or late at night, mixing and matching from ‘Small & Light’ and ‘More Than Just a Bite,’” says executive chef Patricia Williams. “It’s doubled our business.”

The critique: “The headings nicely reflect the concept and do the job of drawing in the customer. However, the appetizers listed under ‘More than Just a Bite’ are heartier than the ‘Small & Light’ items, but the wording doesn’t differentiate the two enough.”

Small & Light
White Asparagus Soup  $10
Green Market Vegetable Salad $10
Shrimp Cocktail Salad $15

More Than Just a Bite
Smoked Pulled Pork with crispy grits, mustard greens $10
District Grilled Pizza $15
Lollipop Wings with blue cheese fondue $12

Main Event
Trumpet Royale Risotto $18
Old Fashioned Lazy Duck $20
Wild Striped Bass $22

Minibar
Los Angeles, California
The rationale: “The format forces customers to explore the menu and try new things rather than heading straight to the chicken,” says owner Revel Centano-Rodriguez. 

The critique: “These headings don’t tell the diner much or explain what to expect within each category. I think subtitles are needed.”

This
Chicken Reggae Satay $9
Venison with Mole Aguilar $12
Braised Baby Back Ribs with chipotle-molasses sauce $11

That
Tuna Tataki $10
Brochette of Flatiron Steak $11
Cactus BBQ Shrimp $14

The Other
Stilton Terrine & Frisee Salad $7
Acorn Squash Soup $8
Meze Trio $9

South City Kitchen
Atlanta, Georgia
The rationale: “We [wanted] these headings to be fun and different without sounding contrived,” co-owner Steve Simon says. “The phrases also had to be appropriate to our style of [Southern] food.”

The critique: “Calling appetizers ‘First Flavors’ is on-trend and a good selling tool because diners are so focused on flavor now. ‘Southern Inspirations’ clearly reflects the concept and works well, but ‘Skillet, Grill and Saute’ is not as apparent. A customer might not make a decision by cooking technique.”

First Flavors
Pickled White Shrimp Cocktail $10.50
Fried Green Tomatoes with goat cheese $5.95

Southern Inspirations
Crab Hash $15.75
Bacon Wrapped Meat Loaf $17
Buttermilk Fried Chicken with bourbon gravy $15.75

Skillet, Grill and Saute
Cane Syrup Roasted Halibut $24
Sauteed Mountain Trout $19
Ribeye Steak with salsa verde $26.75

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