The Times says: "In the 'Ten Commandments for Menu Success,' an article published in Restaurant Hospitality magazine in 1994, Allen H. Kelson, a restaurant consultant, wrote, “If admen had souls, many would probably trade them for an opportunity every restaurateur already has: the ability to place an advertisement in every customer’s hand before they part with their money.” This is the operative paragraph in the story.
I'm a restaurateur so I'll defend restaurants. Of course a diner will feel "cheap and used" if visiting restaurants with extremely "salesy" menus like those horrendous, brightly-colored monstrosities at the likes of Outback Steak House -- the menu is like reading multiple billboards on the highway. I hope never to read any more food descriptions that says "showerd with garlic" or "slammed with flavor" or "super-moist and juicy tender and sloppy..." etc.
A menu is, of course, necessary. The most wonderful menus I've seen merely list the title of the dish, the price, and then a one-sentence listing of the ingredients; not too many adjectives at all.
The best "menu" is not a menu at all. It's one's server. The server, especially at high-end restaurants, is the key to the details that one is spared on a minimalist menu. In the case of a menu that's overwhelming to the diner (too many choices, too much verbiage) if asked to help with one's order, a good server will help the diner focus on one or two items out of a field of many.
Once, when asking a server about a $15 appetizer at a restaurant, we were met with the response "oh, I don't know." We paid for our drinks and headed for the door. The server is the "salesperson." I don't want to buy anything from a salesman who doesn't know anything about his product -- because how can he possibly be proud of, or confident in, his product if he knows nothing about it?
I am Chinese, and when I go to the Chinese restaurants that aren't bastardized versions like PF Chang's, the best recommendations are the things that are posted on the walls and are not on the menu.
It seems to me that the diners should give the restaurateur the benefit of a doubt about what they are selling and the restaurateur should give the diner the benefit of a doubt about knowing what they want.
I agree that servers are the best salespeople, assuming that they know what they are doing and that they have had a taste of everything listed, not a given anymore, unfortunately.
I like Alinea's approach. The implicit statement is: I come here for a reason, and I trust you to give me the culinary experience that is unforgettable, no matter what it is. Not all restaurants can make the same lofty goal their own but all too often, they don't come close AND they lie about their abilities a priori, via their menus.
I love your contrast between the simple, named dishes on the Chinese restaurant wall and P.F. Chang's. Chang's menu is a salesy, verbose document that, with the use of scattered exclamation points, hopes to get diners as excited about their microwave and boil-in-bag food as they are!
And indeed, restaurants often lie about their abilities a priori. Isn't it usually the case that the more flowery the verbiage on the menu descriptions, the quality declines. Show me a paragraph about a "flavorful, plump, juicy, tender breast of chicken" and I'll show you a bird that's been cooked to sawdust.
One thing I hate on menus is anything that isn't a concrete description. This is one of the big differences in low-end (especially chain) vs. high-end menus. The low-end menus often include words like "hearty," "taste-tempting," "rich," "world famous," "cooked to perfection" -- words that tell you how they want you to feel about the food, rather than what's in it and how it's prepared. High-end menus do this, too, but much less and usually less directly -- instead of saying "like Grandma used to make," they use the name of the chef's mother (as in the article). This is only okay with me if she is the actual source of the recipe.
In other words, if you want to sell me, don't make me feel as though I'm being sold.
I agree less is more.
Here are menu descriptions of two of my favorite dishes. The first From Michael Mina, the second from Joel Robuchon.
Maine Lobster Pot Pie
• Brandied Lobster Cream, Seasonal Vegetables
LE SAUMON FUME
dans une gelée marbrée aux sucs d'herbes, crème légère au raifort
Smoked salmon in an herb gelée with a light wasabi cream
Simple explenations of incredible dishes, of course service at either is going to be extremely knowledgable.