With this month's column the Language Lounge is three years old, and we wish to take advantage of being a three-year-old by throwing a small tantrum. Like most tantrums, this one will be fleeting and its subject is not of the earth-shaking variety: we direct our obloquy at menu writing. Not, mind you, food writing: that's an entirely separate and venerable genre. We are concerned with the writing of restaurant menus, and the view, cherished by some but held in the Lounge to be erroneous, that a restaurant menu is a suitable medium for flights of lexical fancy.

It's always a good idea to start on a positive note, so we start with the sort of menu writing we like: take, for example, this description of a dish, which we've borrowed from the menu of New York City's Café Mozart:

Black Linguine Shrimp Pasta Black Linguine, yellow tomato marinara, snow peas, scallions and roasted garlic

or this one, from Coq d'Argent in London:

Red mullet on spinach, haddock and potato cake with creamed artichoke sauce

These descriptions are straightforward: pretty much wysiwyg word versions of the food to come that do not tax one's vocabulary or syntax-parsing abilities -- because after all, we go to restaurants to eat. This is the sort of menu writing that we would like to see more of, but that today is under threat from menu writing that has been placed in the hands of overzealous restaurateurs -- who may go so far as to employ soi-disant or wannabe writing professionals.

As we see it, the transgressions of modern menu writing fall into four categories:

  1. inaccuracies
  2. needless elegant variation
  3. injudicious use of foreign words
  4. gratuitous value judgments

It is remarkable how often all four fouls can be scored on the same menu, and how one can predict when this will occur with eerie accuracy. It usually begins when your server strong-arms you into a first-name acquaintanceship from the get-go: "Hi, I'm Heather and I'll be taking care of you this evening." Next, as you begin to scan the menu, you spot the telltale phrase "honey-mustard" and a preponderance of past participles that you don't normally associate with food, like studded, drenched, and panéed (whatever that means). Before you know it, you have encountered a full-blown monstrosity that merits a 9-1-1 to both the food police and the language police, along the lines of

"Yummy shredded ropes of jerked baby pork mesquite-roasted to perfection, nestled inside a heavenly pillow of griddled polenta, studded with pepperdews and julienned fennel, served on a bed of mâche and mesclun greens and then drenched in our secret famous rum-ranchero sauce. Scrumptious!"

Now, this a pillow that we would not deign to dine on but that we suggest would be put to a better use smothering the literary aspirations of the menu writer.

  1. Baby is a frequent modifier in menus and exemplifies the inaccuracy trope well, since most menu inaccuracies are intended to make something sound more interesting or exotic than it is. Most things passed off as baby carrots are, after all, only carrots of all ages machined down to uniform pinkie size. Other sorts of inaccuracies often involve descriptions of preparation methods and take advantage of the fact that these are normally hidden from the diner. Must the mahi-mahi be advertised as having been wok-seared when on arrival it's clear that nothing has happened to it that couldn't happen in a frying pan? Must the salad be bedizened with hardwood-smoked bacon lardons when what arrives is indistinguishable from minced bits of Oscar-Meyer?
  2. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines elegant variation thus: "the stylistic fault of studiedly finding different ways to denote the same thing in a piece of writing, merely to avoid repetition." This is perhaps the menu writer's greatest pitfall. Granted, pillow is a word likely to conjure more pleasant associations than, say, slab; but since the description above does not strictly require a partitive noun, why not just dispense with one? Along similar lines, we find that nearly all duets that appear on food menus seem to be unhappy refugees from musical scores. Why not just say "two of...?"
  3. Isn't polenta just another name for cornmeal mush? Mâche also has a serviceable English equivalent in salad. If the restaurant is actually an ethnic one, liberty must be allowed for the use of foreign food terms, but it should be kept in mind that many diners are not dazzled by such words, but simply confused by them. We recently found a dessert described as

    Le gateau de chocolate mise en cage de sauce framboise

    After our pocket translator rendered this as "The cake of chocolate put out of sauce raspberry cage" we weren't sure whether we should take a chance on ordering it or run for cover. Wouldn't chocolate cake with raspberry sauce do the job just as well? Similarly, it's fine for British menus to waffle on about mangetout, aubergines, or courgettes because those are the names that Brits actually use for snow peas, eggplants, and zucchini, but when American menus slip in such terms, the airs are rather too apparent.

  4. Menus that proclaim a value judgment on the food or its method of preparation presume a function that should be left to the diner. How can it be known in advance that the pork has been mesquite-roasted to perfection? The food critic is expected to make free with adjectives such as exquisite, delicious, succulent, and wonderful, but they should be avoided in menu writing; their applicability is for the diner to decide.

Everyone is free to have a go at creating atmosphere with words, but we suggest that this activity is more the province of the novelist, the poet and the balladeer than the restaurateur. It is better, surely, to allocate restaurant budget resources to the things that diners appreciate: the food and the service.

We would suggest this test for the writers of menus: imagine yourself to have just returned to the comforts of your hearth after a day in the trenches of post-modernity: you say to your resident spouse or beloved first-degree relative who has been tending the pots and pans, "What's for dinner?"

If you've been good, what's likely to come back is a brief, to-the-point description that tells you what you need to know. Use that kind of language as the model for describing restaurant fare and leave the peppercorn-crusted empanadas en croûte to the few who can appreciate them.

We surveyed a number of mouth-watering menus at these two websites:

www.menupages.com for U.S. restaurants, and

www.toptable.co.uk for U.K. restaurants.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 1st 2008, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Kari H.
3 cheers for the tantrum about menus. Below are some menu selections from one of my local dives. The food is actually quite good but the menu is horrible.

Captain Sirloin
Good enough to make the spirit of Captain Woodruff reach up and smack the cook for not having it when he was around! We take our 10 oz. sirloin and stuff it with sauteed shrimp, spinach, mushrooms, bacon, parmesan cheese, and garlic butter. We let this marinate for several hours and then cook it to your liking. We place two sides on the plate for you to save until last because once you start this you won't want to stop.
Brewer's Note: For those with a creative flair (and legal body), this meal is best enjoyed with our signature beer the Woodruff IPA!

Mesquite-Grilled Ribeye
A tasty 12 oz. ribeye, seasoned and grilled to a perfect state. Trust us, the grill marks are so defined you can play tic-tac-toe on them. However, remember what your parents said about playing with your food - you'll go blind or something.

Downtown Sirloin
Think seasoned choice sirloin. Think open flame mesquite grill. Think mushrooms and onions. Think feta cheese. Think two sides. Okay, quit thinking and grab that server of yours before you start nibbling on your arm.

Tuesday January 1st 2008, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Carla M.
I always wondered what polenta was. Now that I know that it is corn meal mush, I am really glad that I did not order it.
Tuesday January 1st 2008, 10:36 AM
Comment by: Jan P.
Mâche is actually a salad green, otherwise known as corn salad (Valerianella locusta)
Tuesday January 1st 2008, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
The menu descriptions in the column sound like the sort of dishes that are described in our weekly paper by the restaurant rater. I didn't realize that she got her columns from the menu itself! Haven't been to but one of the places she's described -- too hard to know what they serve.

The problem seems contagious having infected our magazine giving information to tourists. Same sort of gobbledy-gook there!
Tuesday January 1st 2008, 11:15 AM
Comment by: adaletheactor (louisville, KY)
Tuesday January 1st 2008, 11:33 AM
Comment by: Nicole A.
As a food writer, chef and restaurant addict, I have been writing and re-writing my version of this rant for years. Huzzah to Orin for bringing it to the world. I actually play a "heinous-menu" game with my other chef pals in which we compete for worst menu name witnessed. The prize is often a nice glass of Syrah or a bowl of raspberries. My current favorite is "Grapefruit Carpaccio* with a Torchon** of Foie Gras". Up there,too, is "Swordfish Sirloin".

Actual definitions:
*thin shavings of raw beef filet (sometimes now ahi grade tuna) drizzled with olive oil and perhaps capers
**Tea Towel
Tuesday January 1st 2008, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Ray Z.
When visiting Germany in 1991, we hadn't studied as much food language as we should have. After a few surprises, we started asking if the restaurant had a menu in English. When I encounter menus such as described in this article, I am tempted to ask, "Do you have a menu in English?"
Tuesday January 1st 2008, 2:43 PM
Comment by: Debra S.
Here, here for the trantrum. I recently ordered a Steak wedge salad, drizzled with blue cheese dressing, topped with bacon bits at an upscale restaurant in a resort location. Thinking I was getting some wedges of steak, like chicken chunks in a chicken salad, I was served a wedge of lettuce topped with blue cheese dressing and bacon bits. Where's the steak, I asked?

Silly me to make such an asumption. By now, I didn't have time to send it back and make it back to our meeting on time. So I ate my expensive (nine dollar) half head of lettuce that I had to cut with a knife trying to look sophisticated among my friends. My lesson - better to look silly in the beginning and ask, rather than be left with a dissatisfied appetite at the end.
Tuesday January 1st 2008, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Pondswimmer (Ste Foy La Grande France)
Actually in England mange tout and snow peas are both on sale at my local greengrocer. Mange tout are flatter while snow peas have bulging peas within the pod. Both are cooked and eaten the same way - lightly steamed and whole.
Wednesday January 2nd 2008, 12:08 AM
Comment by: Ikars S.
Seems to me this discussion is sublimely ridiculous. Could concerns about good writing not zero in on something more significant. One who cares about good language will get a laugh from menu language, but to get upset about seems a waste of time.

A supposedly well written menu item may seem pure gibberish to someone who likes things plain. Would one knowing normal English syntax--where adjectives precede the word(s) they modify--but not necessarily completely familiar with words other than black grasp the meaning of Black Linguine Shrimp Pasta, or would it raise one or more of the following thoughtsthat come to mind are:

1. Isn't linguine pasta, and, if so why use one synonym to describe the
2. Does one singe noodles/pasta to get black linguine.
3. Is linguine shrimp a special kind of shrimp.
4. Is shrimp pasta mashed shrimp, i.e.,something like pate de foie gras.
Wednesday January 2nd 2008, 12:12 AM
Comment by: Stuart D.
Actually my tastes are simple i.e. A buttermilk batter laid gently onto a non-tefon waffle iron (circa 1930's)served slightly crisp, but not soggy, with a gentle cascade of powdered sugar and a hearty drizzle of imported Maple Syrup. Oh my, what a remarkable culinary experience. Please praise the chef.
Wednesday January 2nd 2008, 12:30 AM
Comment by: Diane B.
It seems it is much easier for us in Australia to decipher menus as we are bombarded with variations of language (particularly nouns) from every other country on the planet, hence our translation skills are honed from the cradle an onwards. Although like many of the writers I am amused by some of the silliness of the menu descriptions I have no trouble with knowing what is listed.
Wednesday January 2nd 2008, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Samson R.
Have we forgotten how to have fun? We go out to dinner to have a good time. Just being there for the change in scene and atmosphere, and chuckling at the "trying to impress" way the menu is written is part of the enjoyment.

But I guess for some, finding fault with, and looking down your nose at the perceived motives of other people is funny. Try loosening up and enjoy the people who are trying to see that you are having an enjoyable evening. When you do that you might have more fun. Chicken fried steak, anyone?
Wednesday January 2nd 2008, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Kenneth R.
Ah, menu language silliness. One could write a book. I've found that a menu loaded with self-complimentary verbiage is almost always a warning to flee before ordering; that goes double if the menu includes photographs of the food.

Hyperbole or desperate variation along the lines of "studded," "nestled," etc. is also a bad sign--it just means the pain will be more expensive.

That said, a fair number of the terms cited in the article are actually quite precise. Another commenter pointed out that mâche is a specific green and polenta, in whatever context, is in far more common usage, at least here in Boston, than corn meal mush, a term I've never heard used, let alone seen on a menu. "Torchon" does mean "tea towel", but it's also a reference to the way fois gras is cooked and served, i.e. rolled in a tea towel so it resembles a log (think salami), then poached, chilled and sliced to serve. Fois gras prepared this way has a distinctly different (and to my taste, preferable) texture and flavor than, say, fois gras that is sautéed. True lardons, by the way, don't resemble bacon bits; if yours do, then you're getting ripped off. Sometimes, instead of assuming that a menu is being pretentious, it's worth asking what a term means. "Carpaccio," for purists, will always be an Italian dish of thinly shaved raw beef. Another commenter pointed out that it's now applied to ahi-tuna. I've seen it used in regard to yellow tail. I agree: grapefruit carpaccio sounds a bit of stretch. But then again so is "barley risotto", "faro risotto" (which at least has the virtue of using an Italian grain), and all the other non-rice risottos. The point about carpaccio is that some people have found it a convenient alternative to "thinly sliced broad pieces of raw..." "Risotto" users want to reference a grain dish that's cooked by the gradual addition of hot broth, resulting in a specific texture. Hey, I find "pizza" with pineapple and ham unappealing, but I get why somebody's calling it pizza. Think of all that "pesto" out there that's made with herbs other than basil.

Anyone older than fifty is aware that this country has undergone a culinary cultural revolution that continues to feed and transform our food vocabulary. Think of how our shared culinary vocabulary--along with our waistlines--has grown over the last thirty years. Thirty years ago, pesto would have required an explanation to many diners; cornichons wouldn't have been recogized as tiny pickles and as a former sommelier I can attest that many diners new to wine used to think that "burgundy" was a kind of California wine.

Fajitas, favas, pancetta, balsamic vinegar, mandoline, a few off the top of my head...

Wednesday January 2nd 2008, 12:45 PM
Comment by: Eric C.
The devil's advocate here. As an amateur grammarian and seasoned restaranteur, I can't defend all the abuse of our language happening on menus in the English-speaking world, but I can think of a few concepts that drive a menu writer to creative turns of the language.

Competition. The power of suggestion that these descriptions hold for many diners makes them want to return to try the delicious sounding dish that they did not try on this visit. I want you to come back to my restaurant. The service, presentation and quality are geared to accomplish that end. Enticing menu descriptions are an element of that presentation so that you will return to try the scallops.

Innovations. Inaccurate, misspelled, confusing descriptors are not what encourages return visits, but Wagyu beef's shoulder cut actually looks like a pillow. Furthermore, to put "shoulder cut" on the menu has always meant "Cheap" and "Tough", neither of which describe this cut. Sometimes new foods invite new words or usages into the food language quite accurately.

Universality of perception. Words just don't cut it for the experience of smells and tastes. Sure, Hemingway had a couple of powerful, nearly visceral descriptions for pears and oysters, but overall, I cannot verbally describe how a steak tastes to convey its succulent intensity of flavor (according to my perception)as accurately without similarly impressionistic powers of the language. I can describe the peppery demi-glace and the buttered, wilted greens just fine, but to get the idea of the quality of this or that dish requires a value judgment word like "succulent". "Prime" just doesn't make your mouth water.

Again, I want to answer the "What's for dinner?" question as many times as I can. Impressionistic, colorful, sometimes multi-lingual descriptions help communicate on a menu more powerfully and evocatively than a technical, contrasted and dry description..... n'est-ce pas?
Wednesday January 2nd 2008, 7:41 PM
Comment by: Tim G.
Hey, Eric

As a grammarian, you may prefer to use the correct term for yourself: restaurateur rather than the inaccurate restauranteur! As for menu descriptions? Surely people come back if they like the cooking.
Thursday January 3rd 2008, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Eric C.
Well-noticed Tim, may your appetite never be as sharp!
Thursday January 3rd 2008, 2:59 PM
Comment by: Jim Q.
Kenneth Rivard isn't from the south. We still don't know what the fancy words mean. I like your discriptions and think Kenneth is a pretentious twit.
Monday January 7th 2008, 10:51 PM
Comment by: Joseph M.
Coming from a restaurant environment my brothers and I have run with your lead. We are presently making a menu from the contents of a restaurant garbage can and embellishing it verbally in such a way that the novice might mistake it for an epicurean delight!

Thursday January 10th 2008, 7:14 PM
Comment by: Sue J.
Echoing Diane's comment above, it does seem that in Australia we are very accustomed to a wide diversity of words, including foreign language nouns and descriptions in our restaurant menus. Like Diane, I also smile at the hyperbole and seeming pomposity of some of the menus I meet - but don't have a problem understanding what is actually on offer. Melbourne, where I live, has a population of approximately 3.7 million and over 3,000 restaurants that seem to cover just about every cuisine around the globe. I'm not sure how that compares with elsewhere, and would be curious to find out whether this is a higher or lower number of restaurants per head than elsewhere in the world. :-)
Sunday January 13th 2008, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Julie H.
Jim Quinn, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kenneth Rivard's little piece. I think you are a closet pretentious twit. These words are out there on a menu to add flavour to your evening. Certainly being playful is not in your nature. But why resort to calling people names? I smell a blue cheese dipped chip on your shoulder!
Tuesday January 22nd 2008, 5:17 PM
Comment by: Joseph B.
Finally, someone has taken pompous menu writers to task. Bravo,Orin!
Tuesday February 10th 2009, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Dorothy G. (Canada)
I lived in Toronto from 1963 forward, and at that time there was a restaurant called Fran's. It was open longer hours than most (which was a godsend in 1950-60s Toronto) wasn't awfully expensive, and today would be called family friendly. The menu, however...
People actually asked the server to leave the menu behind for reading. All eggs were "farm fresh", and "cooked to perfection", all bacon was "crisp", and hash browns were "home fried, and browned to perfection". It went on (and on, and on...)
It did give people something to read while waiting for the last bus.
It was generally amusing, and for some became a byword (Heavens, how that man can talk. Did he think that he was writing the menu at Fran's?)
Now, all menus are written this way. I wish I had a neat aphorism at this point, but I only have a sigh.
Thursday February 19th 2009, 11:28 PM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Fascinating that this subject led to so much discussion, which I missed since I was not yet a member of VT. Food is universal---we are all experts since we all eat---and we are all passionate about it. But, though I am usually in agreement with Mr. Hargraves, I do not agree with him on this topic.

Most menus are fine by me in their infinite variety and serve as a revealing first peek into the kind of food and type of preparation that will follow. A menu is like the personality of an individual: I do not take to everyone who I meet, but I am glad to have the opportunity to decide based on the traits they choose to reveal to me.

There may be be a geographic component to this issue. In coastal California, in our role as one of the two lunatic fringes of this country, we are fascinated with our food and its variations.

So I find that polenta is not an affectation but a descriptive term that is in wide use mostly, I suspect, because corn meal mush sounds ugly and polenta sounds lovely. I am not offended by those who would choose a lovelier term to describe a delicious and comforting food. I also note that the ways polenta is now prepared are more typically European and therefore outside of the purview of plain corn meal mush. Try some hot, creamy polenta with coarse ground black pepper and marscapone cheese and you may share my feelings.

Likewise, mache is also not to my mind an affectation. Mache is a type of green. In the San Francisco Bay Area the menu is imparting key information about the salad when it makes a distinction between mache and, for example, arugula, in a salad. The salad will taste completely different depending on what is used since mache has a mild delicate flavor that varies with the seasons and arugula is peppery and can be quite surprisingly spicy and it is proper to convey this information.

Here from the site wisegeek.com are the descriptions of mache and then of arugula. Read these descriptions. I think you will agree that they are not both simply lettuce:

Friday February 20th 2009, 7:29 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Kcecelia: I agree that "polenta" sounds way more appetizing and redeeming than "corn meal mush." I'm not sure what happened with the mache business; what I wrote in the article was "corn salad," which is the American English term for "mache." The "corn" bit got dropped somewhere. I'm a big fan of mache/corn salad -- I grow it!

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Writer's Craft
- 1 Comment
Orin "crafts" a piece about how a certain word is used... and misused.
Most Fowl
A bird in hand? Here's the Lounge's take.