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Would how the item is written on the menu make a difference to you?

Not sure if this is in the right place, but: I'm a graphic designer/food lover (NOT a foodie) and I'm designing/writing up a menu for an Indian restaurant.

Thing is, I'm going on their old menu, and it's pretty stiff going. I'm just wondering: would it make a difference to anyone (food-porn lovers or just civilians, doesn't matter) as to how any given dish is described?

"Steak in mushroom sauce" is pretty basic, but, if it were "Niman Ranch filet in merlot-thyme gravy with roast potato mufti" would that make a difference to you? Namely, because item number one is priced at $18 while number two is at $46. Maybe. Just theorising, here. And who knows, it might be the same steak in unscrupulous hands.

I'm just thinking to help this guy out (unfortunately anything I come up with in English has to be translated into French) and was wondering whether I should shed my graphic designer mantle for a minute and embellish his menu descriptions. Is it worth the extra energy? I know that I myself would be driven to order a dish based on its description, if skillfully described. Would it sway your decision-making process one way or the other how something is described on a menu?

Sorry. I know you know what I'm saying.

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  1. I think you should be descriptive without going into the maiden name of the paternal grandmother of the guy who grew the spices sort of thing. It's not simple, particularly if it then has to be translated into French, since some rhetorical flourishes are not easily translatable. Maybe: aloo ghobi - fresh-picked cauliflower with x type of potatoes, smother-cooked to tenderness in a typical Punjabi masala featuring cumin, coriander, and turmeric - ?

    1. Generally, I prefer simple descriptions without extravagent prose. I tend to find that food in places that have the latter sort of menu doesnt match the description.

      Taking buttertart's example of aloo gobi, my current favourite three restaurants in the metro area describe the dish as:

      potato & caulflower cooked in a sauce

      potato & fresh cauliflower cooked with onions, tomatoes & spices

      cauliflower, potatoes & spices

      Bear in mind that, with the classics of any cuisine, many diners will know exactly what they are likely to get on the plate and almost any description is unnecessary. Some others will, of course, be swayed by the attempt at up-selling in the prose.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Harters

        I'd go for number 2 on Harters list of examples. bit more descriptive w/o going overboard. in the OP's examples I'd aim somewhere in the middle. one sounds like leftovers masquerading as salisbury steak and the other is a bit 'precious'

      2. I'm not fond of uber-pretension on menus, but I do like to know what I'm eating.

        I'd suggest that you identify the flavours that stick out due to the ingredient. I'm always amused when the menu makes great shakes about the type of potatoes going into the garlic mash, for example, where the potato flavour is completely trumped by the garlic, oil, and butter, so they could just as easily used 10 cent a pound spuds from the local market.

        In the example you gave, I'd better be tasting that merlot and the thyme in the sauce, because my other pet peeve is promised flavours that are absent. . Can't tell you the number of times I've been offered something "infused with x", where said infusion must have been brief and fleeting, as there is no hint of it in the finished dish.

        1. Sure. I think if you're going to be serving locally grown or some other type of fare that distinguishes your food from the norm you should say so without going crazy. Here, for example is a menu from a local resto that specializes in local ingredients:


          1 Reply
          1. re: junescook

            unfair, now jfood has to run up there and have that difficult lunch decision on the pulled pork or the antelope burger. Carol sure can cook.

          2. Okay, the problem here is the graphic designer fighting with the food guy. I WANT to embellish the description, but I know that if I do, it will create more work for me! (Plus, I have to get this stuff translated!)

            But for Aloo Gobi, I have:

            Pomme de terre et choux-fleur avec cumin et ├ępices
            Potato and cauliflower with cumin and spices

            Pretty dry! I wish I could work in "fingerling" there somewhere.

            9 Replies
            1. re: tonbo0422

              ....."Steak in mushroom sauce" is pretty basic, but, if it were "Niman Ranch filet in merlot-thyme gravy with roast potato mufti" would that make a difference to you? Namely, because item number one is priced at $18 while number two is at $46.

              Absolutely not. Even if diners are thought to be the kind of dolts who would pay $46. for an $18. meal, they ARE smart enough to know when they're being fleeced.

              Honesty is always the best policy. You can fool some of the people some of the time, et cetera.

              1. re: tonbo0422

                Are they always going to be fingerlings? Maybe there's some abstruse truth-in-menuing law that might require that?

                1. re: buttertart

                  PS is this for a restaurant in France or Qu├ębec? Just wondering.

                2. re: tonbo0422

                  Fingerling would be fine to add, but I would be more curious as to what the 'other' spices are. I would list any that are more aggressive in the dish. Similar to what was said upthread, I am less interested in the type of potato used, but I do want to know what cut of meat I am ordering.

                  1. re: onceadaylily

                    Meat should be quite easy. It'll be mostly lamb and chicken - pork and beef don't figure too much in South Asian cooking for the obvious cultural reasons. Just checking with the menu at one of my local places, there's only of "lamb" or "chicken" and the only other description of the meat is whether it's on or off the bone (except for a dish of "lamb chops tikka")

                    1. re: Harters

                      I was just responding to the 'steak with mushroom sauce' example the OP used.

                      I admit that I may be in the minority when it comes to menu descriptions. I don't want the type of flowery language that is meant to seduce, but I do want to know as many components of the dish as possible. Asking a server usually just sends them running to the kitchen to annoy the staff, but I myself am annoyed if I see 'spices' or 'sauce' on a menu with nothing else to gauge the dish, especially if I am unfamiliar with the cuisine.

                      1. re: onceadaylily

                        Ditto that. I want to know the ingredients (especially anything that might be objectionable to some) and main seasonings, without a lot of fluff. I have had some experiences where dishes didn't specify that they had certain ingredients in them that I can't/don't eat, and those went back to the kitchen really quickly. But I also think that overly flowery descriptions can be annoying, or intimidating. I consider myself fairly food-savvy, but I don't know what "roast potato mufti" is - potatoes, sure, but beyond that...?

                  2. re: tonbo0422

                    Cumin *is* a spice. Why list separately?

                    Your description seems to pretty much reflect my three local descriptions.

                    1. re: tonbo0422

                      the problem i have with being so specific and going into long descriptions (besides sounding overly pretentious) is that so many times i've ordered something and when it comes the ingredients they specified have been substituted... you know what i mean?

                    2. No, I'm really just discussing figuratively. They're not fingerlings, but I'm just wondering that if they were, would you pay more for the dish? This is a purely hypothetical scenario -- I'm just wondering if more descriptive words (other than "potatoes") might make someone more inclined to order/pay more.

                      I'd actually have to talk to the chef to find out exactly what potatoes he uses, but it would be a disappointment to find out he got them at Costco!

                      It's really just a bit perverse of me to see if how I actually describe the food makes a difference to the person who's going to consume it. After all, we don't say "boneless, skinless, featherless" any more.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: tonbo0422

                        Let me approach this from another angle - and suggest that pricing will be much more to do with the class of restaurant (and/or how it's perceived in the local community) and, also, how much folk generally expect to pay for that sort of meal - in your case Indian.

                        In my metro area, we have the "Curry Mile" - actually about half a mile but with around 40 South Asian restaurants along the one road. They are all pretty much of muchness - low level casual dining. All have pretty much the same menu offerings. All have pretty much the same ambience. All have pretty much the same pricing.

                        However, around the wider metro area are other, higher level, places, including the three I refer to upthread. They can get away with charging a little more. But is is only a little more - maybe 10 - 15%. That's because, even though the food is superior there's an expectation about how much an Indian meal is going to cost.

                        1. re: tonbo0422

                          I think, the more elaborate the description, the more I'd *expect* to pay, if that makes sense? I do think we have a couple of different directions being discussed - it can be more thoroughly informative and/or be more fancy and flowery. If the item is described plainly and simply but with plenty of facts or details, it wouldn't necessarily make me adjust my expectation of the cost as much as the fancy talk would.

                          1. re: occula

                            in other words, the wording makes us expect a higher price, although we know its a ripoff, we are forwarned before the bill comes so we won't start cursing when we see the total...it doesn't make the dish worth more money, we can probably get the exact same dish, probably better, for half the price at the mom and pop restaurant down the street. AND we'd be repeat customers... im sorry if you charge me $46 for an $18 meal i probably won;t come back, unless its a truly amazing dining experience

                          2. re: tonbo0422

                            Some words have more power than others in a menu description because they provide more information to the diner. If there WERE fingerling potatoes in that aloo gobi I would want to know, because it's a fancy, expensive kind of potato, so the word "fingerling" indicates to me that this dish is going to be fancier and more expensive than your average aloo gobi. However, if they are plain old Yukon Gold potatoes you're probably better off going with "potatoes" because the extra information the descriptor gives doesn't make that much difference to the diner.

                            Also, when translation is involved simple is always best. An impressive description mistranslated isn't impressive, it's just funny.

                            1. re: tonbo0422

                              I think the description does affect the purchase, but that it is a complicated issue - a fancier description won't necessarily make the dish more desirable.

                              Too basic, and the diner doesn't know what they are ordering.

                              Too detailed, and the diner is disappointed when they don't get the fingerling potatoes, or can't taste the infusion of thyme.

                              Too flowery, and it looks pretentious and silly.

                              For an Indian restaurant, I don't care whether the dish has fingerling potatoes or not, or if the cauliflower was hand picked under a full moon. I want to know things like is the sauce yoghurt based? dry? tomato based? coconut based? Is the dish hot or mild? What are the dominant spices?

                              As far as flowery vs price, I think it's an issue of the type of restaurant. If it's a laid back family Indian restaurant, then no amount of flowery dialogue is going to make me pay $46 instead of $18. If it's a fine dining establishment with crystal and linen tableclothes and attentive service, then the embellishments on the menu will fit with the price (although I may still find it pretentious).

                              On another note - I'd be really careful about any sort of flourish in description that has to be translated. A bad translation will undo any good effect of a fancier description.

                            2. I'm wondering whether there might be a cultural difference here. Though maybe it's changed, I've spent a bit of time in France and I would say that the standards for how menus are written tend to the simple, particularly for the classic dishes that most people know. While in the US people might expect the menu to be a sales pitch, elsewhere it's just the facts, and more might be a turn-off.

                              However, it may be worth noting something like the provenance of the meat, if it were a particular brand that justified a higher cost as in the case of Niman Ranch.

                              1. I've done this for restaurants before, and the wording makes a HUGE difference. Even the order things appear on a menu makes a huge difference. When people know what they are getting, the difference might not matter that much, but for things like Indian food, a few different words here and there can double or triple the number of certain dishes you sell. I read one article that said just moving an item from the bottom to a spot 1/4 down from the top of a page (the "sweet spot") can make it sell 25% more. There are consultants that do this type of thing for a living. IMHO, without making it pretentious, the more specific you can be the better. Many ethnic menus suffer from cryptic language that steers people away from certain items because they can't envision what the dish looks like. In the worst cases people use words like "meat" or "seafood," (granted these are egregious examples, but "steak" is bad too), which scare the diner into ordering something safe, like chicken. The average person does not take the time to ask about every dish they don't know about. Nobody wants to ask ten questions. They'll ask two or three at the most, and if they're still wary of something they'll just order something else safe. Also, being more specific will save the wait staff from explaining things over and over again. Most servers have to answer the same questions all day, every day, and a lot of that can be remedied by wording. I'm not a proponent of making things sound fancy in order to charge more, but I think many good ethic restaurants do a disservice to the food by killing the chances of many menu items with unappetizing descriptions. I have to admit I am scared to order random things off the menus of most Indian and Chinese restaurants. I know that certain dishes have to be good in order to warrant a place on a menu, but forgive me for passing on "Hot fragrant spring onion return meat" at my local Chinese restaurant. Better menus would go a long way towards helping people navigate foreign cuisines, and they give customers more confidence in coming back to a place that doesn't intimidate them. On the other hand, if you make it pretentious you will drive people away. It is an art.

                                Personally, in the above example I think something like "Niman Ranch filet with red wine sauce and potato mufti" is not over the top if you're using Niman Ranch filet. "Steak" is too cryptic. "Mushroom sauce" could be anything - a wine reduction, cream sauce etc. Someone is either going to have to tell them what it is, or they might just pass. "Potato mufti" won't scare anyone away because nobody is afraid of potatoes even though they probably don't know what a mufti is. BTW what is potato mufti?

                                Check out this Chinese menu (At least you'll know you can't write the worst menu out there)


                                8 Replies
                                1. re: la2tokyo

                                  You make a lot of very interesting and very useful points about the need for specificity, the "sweet spot", and so forth.
                                  However, as others have previously noted with regard to the link, how good is the person making fun of the menu's Chinese? If you do read Chinese, you can see that a lot of the translations are either direct word for word or the result of someone sitting down with a dictionary and picking what they think is the appropriate word out of the many shown. At least the person trying to translate the menu was capable of reading the dictionary to some extent and making a stab at the correct words. I very much doubt that the person who put this up for derision has ever laid hand on, much less remotely been able to use, a Chinese dictionary. Fun is fun, but I just can't bring myself to find ignorance funny.

                                  1. re: buttertart

                                    "Fun is fun, but I just can't bring myself to find ignorance funny."

                                    Me too. I hate those "amusing" websites which display attempts, in foreign countries, to produce menus (or signs) in English. At least there is a willingness to make an effort to be helpful. I've yet to visit a restaurant in our capital and see a menu offered to tourists in French, German, Japanese, or whatever.

                                    1. re: Harters

                                      The same is true in the States and Canada.

                                      1. re: buttertart

                                        I agree. I regret putting that link up now, but my point wasn't to ridicule anyone. I'm sorry if it was offensive. The point is that somebody's business (and livelyhood) is likely severely suffering because of the way they have worded a menu. My family did the same thing when they owned a Japanese restaurant here in the US. The menu items with bad descriptions never sold. When I finally forced them to change the wording, those items immediately started selling more. They never put any work into writing the menu because they said it didn't matter. My parents could have easily written a better menu or had a friend help with the translation (even though they speak very good English), but they didn't believe how important image is to a restaurant in America. My parents were eventually successful, but it took them a decade to build up a clientele that could have been built in two years with better marketing, all of which they could have done themselves. The menu of a restaurant is probably its most important marketing tool. I love eating at a hole-in-the-wall, but usually somebody has to recommend certain places or certain dishes in order to get me to try a new place out if the menu is daunting. Even among 'Hounders, there are not many people who are going to walk into a hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant without a referral and start ordering random things off a menu without knowing what they are. Unfortunately now that most restaurant menus are available on the internet, it makes judging a book by it's cover even more likely.

                                        1. re: la2tokyo

                                          I take your points and I'm sure your intent was positive. I imagine the restaurant in question got along as well as possible, since I take it it was in China and the majority of their clientele wouldn't have paid any attention to the English. (This link and others like it have been posted by others in the past whose seeming intent was mockery. It's a hot button for me, it sticks in my throat every time I see it.)
                                          The regional-cuisine Chinese restaurants geared to a Chinese clientele (or which expect to be serving a primarily Chinese clientele) here in NY have menus that have English translaions on them. Even in China I have only once or twice been handed a menu with absolutely no English on it (all of the English on the others completely intelligible even if not colloquial).
                                          I don't know of any holes in the wall in this area where an English speaker would have to order random things off a menu without knowing what they were - there may be some of course.
                                          It's too bad your obvious skills were not available to your parents when they were starting out in business, I am sure they would have benefited from them.

                                          1. re: buttertart

                                            In one area of our city, there are a number of "curry cafes" (back street places serving South Asian food). There are no menus. There are usually about six or seven dishes available which the guy will tell you are "lamb", "chickpea", chicken" "spinach", "whatever". It is enough of a description to order.

                                            1. re: Harters

                                              The OP needs to find what are the most profitable dishes/what dishes should be pushed for the Indian restaurant as that should guide the design of the menu- everything in the order you list the different dishes, where you place the most profitable dish on the menu(it depends if its one page menu vs double page menu), how you draw attention to the dish by using more descriptive sensory words or using graphics or even with a picture of the dish, etc...

                                              Since the OP is a graphic designer, it seems like a waste to not use those skills to create a better menu to help steer customers.

                                  2. re: la2tokyo

                                    This is a hilarious post (and I'm sorry for being away so long, even though I was the original poster).

                                    But I swear, I'm highly amused when I go to California (I'm in Montreal) and I read these paragraph-length menu descriptions, about where the chickens were raised (no pet names, please!) but at the same time they're highly entertaining and I love to read them.

                                    Who wants to see "Top sirloin with mushroom sauce" instead of "Premium grade grass-fed free-range eye of loin from Muscadet farms with chanterelles in Merlot?"

                                    Holy moly, I'd pay $20 more for that than the former. Very funny post, but you totally got what I was talking about.

                                    I mean, I have a semi-food blog and I once called one of my recipes "Patate Cinque Formaggio, Prosciutto, Cipolla, Crema, Aglio e Mandorla alla Nicola." (http://montrealfoodblog.blogspot.com/...


                                    Hey, doesn't that sound a bit dandier than "Scalloped Potatoes?

                                  3. This thread introduces interesting issues, but I have to say that the OP's question--in effect, whether or not to embellish--doesn't always compute to me, because the examples of embellishing take the form of getting more specific about the ingredients even though there seems to be no basis for doing so, even hypothetically (Niman Ranch as opposed to generic here, fingerling potatoes as opposed to generic there).

                                    That said, you might well think of embellishing in the direction of ingredient and preparation facts. "Steak" tells us little, but what cut of steak, and what preparation mode, tells us something important. Whether a curry is wet or relatively dry, what the accessory vegetables might be in an aloo gobi, even what region of India a dish hails from--those are things people might like to know.

                                    But in order that design not get ahead of reality, I assume that you'd do all this in concert with the resto operators, so that that they can ensure that their variations in daily cooking do not veer wide of any embellishments.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: Bada Bing

                                      I don't think the OP ever said anything lying about the dishes by naming fancier ingredients in the menu than the dish really used.

                                      It was more of a simpler question about how much of a difference would better menu description make, if it would worth the effort to make those changes?

                                      And, the answer is yes. Studies have shown that you can get higher prices with better menu descriptions for the same dish. In fact, studies have also shown that people have rated identical dishes more favorably when it was attached to a better menu which emphasized the sizzle when it came to the dish description.

                                      1. re: hobbess

                                        Now the next question is, what if expert photos were taken of the dishes? You know, the food-porn angle? I mean look at a typical ad for a Big Mac. MMMM looks good, but the real thing is a piece of crap.

                                    2. Well, that is a good question. I don't like fluffy menu descriptions but I also have noticed that I never order the dishes described as "classic Indian sauce". Sometimes I'll ask but most of the time I just stick to what I know. Most of us know what each typical Indian dish tastes like or at least the basic ingredients...I think. Maybe they could elaborate on the non-typical fare? Hey, if it is Niman Ranch..., I'd like to know. If it is grass fed beef, I'd be willing to pay more. But, since many diners are not always locals, they might not know which ranch sells plain old corn fed beef and which sells grass fed, non-antibiotic etc.

                                      Organic lamb or chicken is something I'd like to know about. Chicken from some farm might not mean anything to me.

                                      Hope that gives you some ideas.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: MinkeyMonkey

                                        Just also wondering if there's some REGULATION warning restaurants that if they misrepresent their product they can be punished.

                                        I could go to Costo and buy an entire filet mignon tomorrow and then return to my restaurant and post it as Niman-Schell entirely grass-fed filet with no antibiotics or byproducts whatsoever.

                                        Unless Eduardo, the grill line chef, went out to the table and explained that it was Costco filet and they shouldn't be paying $75 for 16 ounces, umm . . . how would they know? Is there some regulatory board?

                                        PS I'm in Canada so American rules wouldn't apply here.

                                        Sorry, Chowhound has gone haywire and is posting my post three times in a row. Whaddya want.