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Sep 22, 2013 04:54 PM

Tasting menus and other no-choice restaurants: why the praise?

It's a subject that's been bothering me for some time, and recent developments spur me to solicit opinion. Amongst food critics particularly, but to a certain extent amongst the general public, it would seem that recently there's a trend to consider places whose format is a no-choice menu such as a tasting menu as in some way automatically better than restaurants in a more traditional idiom (a la carte/prix-fixe). Not just better, MUCH better. Such that the list of "great" restaurants is almost starting to be monopolised by such establishments, while restaurants staying with the traditional format are being downrated. Can anybody explain why?

From the point of view of the restaurant, I can see why it's an easy choice: if you deliver one set menu every night, this simplifies the entire process of preparation as well as cook training, such that the operation can be MUCH cheaper and probably much more easily be conducted at highly reproducible levels. It's not as much of a challenge for the chef, of course, because now they don't have to be masters of changing from one thing to the other over the course of an evening, and from the point of view of the waitstaff it *really* diminishes the challenge - no more worries about incorrect orders, where to place dishes, etc. etc. etc. So it's not a surprise that a lot of elite restaurants are opting for the "easy way out".

But from the point of view of the consumer or the critic, I don't see why such a move should automatically (indeed even at all) put them in a higher or more exalted category. Can anyone explain the thinking behind this?

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  1. Tasting menus that I've encountered are offered in addition to regular menu options, so I really don't see where your rant is coming from.. If you don't like them, don't do them.

    8 Replies
    1. re: pikawicca

      Me neither .

      I've never been to a restaurant that has a tasting menu or a price fix menu that doesn't also offer ala carte.

      Unless its a special event.

      Don't know how they could stay on business if that's what they did

      1. re: C. Hamster

        Saison, Alinea, Masa, Urasawa, Brooklyn Fare, Volt, Rogue 24, to name just a few, are some of the restaurants that only offer tasting menus with no a la carte selections.

        And none of them are in danger of going out of business any time soon.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            ipse: you forgot sushi zo, my very favorite sushi bar. he just opened a second restaurant downtown using the same format.

          2. re: C. Hamster

            In Boston, both Menton and Journeyman are chefs menu/price fix only--no a la carte options.

            1. re: LeoLioness

              I always assumed menton had ala cartre.

              Can't imagine not having that option.

              Had Meredith and Kristin nearby so I should have asked them

              1. re: C. Hamster

                Nope--you can do a 4 course or a 7 course at Menton, that's it. There was a lot of press before it opened about whether or not Boston could support that kind of place but I guess they have (how Union Square has is a much bigger mystery).

          3. re: pikawicca

            In general terms, that has been my experience too - it is "in addition to," rather than "in lieu of."

            One fairly common restaurant for us, Farallon in San Francisco, has tasting menus, and the chef does one, with no bi-valves for my wife. However, we probably do a la carte about 25% of the time, as that suits us, that night.


          4. Most restaurants I've been to that offer tasting menus also have à la carte options.

            I'm not sure I understand your point?

            1. Food critics are ridiculous. That's the explanation.

              Longer answer: People are using going out to eat as their theatre. It has become not only the dinner, but the entertainment and culture for the evening. A mulit-course meal provides that, and then you don't really have to think about much else, do you? You don't even really have to initiate conversation with the person sitting across the table with you because you can always talk about the food and the presentation right in front of you.

              It's dinner-theatre, with better food.

              21 Replies
              1. re: Steve

                Agree. I first encountered a no-choice menu in Boston in the 70's. Also no-choice seating times, Too Early or Too Late. Food was good but I never went back.

                1. re: Steve

                  To the extent that it's a shared experience, I'd agree, but with the right execution it can be an exceptional and memorable one. It's not meant for everyday dining, but what's wrong with that? You let the chef shine and try to impress you. No question that there's an element of theater but again, what's wrong with that. It's not like this is becoming the standard format for restaurants, it's by far still the exception and nowhere near the rule.

                  1. re: ferret

                    The OP was making the distinction between a regular high-end restaurant which sometimes offers a la carte, set menus (3 courses) and tasting menus (many courses) vs restaurants which only offer a tasting menu.

                    At the first kind of restaurant you can have any experience you want, at the latter everyone in the restaurant is locked into the same choice. I don't see the advantage to the customer if you are eating the exact same meal as the person on the other side of the room.

                    "You let the chef shine and try to impress you." That happens at restaurants that offer other options as well.

                    "what's wrong with that." In order to enjoy that chef's talents, you are locked into an even more expensive, time-consuming meal usually preventing you from actually going to the theatre, for example.

                    I have had a favorite chef go from cooking in a regular restaurant to an exclusive tasting menu. In general, I don't really want to commit the money and time to that, so that locks me out. When my wife and I go out, we go to the theatre, and get something to eat before or after. We are not looking for the dinner to be our culture and/or entertainment. I think it's shallow, and I would like the choice of eating a meal that was not such a huge commitment.

                    1. re: Steve

                      You're "locked in" to nothing. These menus are not foisted on you as a surprise, you generally need to reserve well in advance. You know what you're getting into. As far as price, it's either worth it to you or it's not, again, there's no element of surprise.

                      As for "advantage to the customer" at the upper end it's access to the skill and execution of a chef and his team. It may make not a whit of difference to you, but that's why it's only a small percentage of restaurants offering this option - to a small percentage of diners.

                      1. re: ferret

                        If my favorite chef makes a great oyster stew that I love, I would be locked into eating the whole menu just to get that dish which I used to partake of regularly. It is part of a trend. I hope the trend subsides before it gets worse.

                        1. re: Steve

                          Oh good god, really? Somehow I doubt that tasting menus will reach the point of hitting every neighborhood joint. You make it sound like it's a creeping virus. I certainly doubt that it would take over regularly-visited neighborhood spots, so your oyster stew would be free from tyranny.

                          Have you actually been to a tasting-menu-only restaurant? You seem to have a distorted view of how things work.

                          The idea is not to lump a restaurant's existing dishes into a forced "event." There's usually a theme at work and it's a chance for a chef to take some risks* with the understanding that you enjoy a succession of dishes that work with each other in some way.

                          *The very idea of featuring only a tasting menu is a huge risk on the restaurant's part and if it's simply a stunt rather than a focused plan then customers will vote with their feet and wallets. In the era of Yelp, there are few secrets in the food world.

                          1. re: ferret

                            Yes, I have been to them. And I have been to restaurants that give you a choice. I prefer a choice. You seem to be unfamiliar with restaurants that do both very well.

                            I didn't say they've reached every neighborhood joint. And I don't mind if they do as long as they keep other options as well.

                            What is the advantage to the customer of a restaurant discarding the rest of the menu?

                            1. re: Steve

                              Again, you make it seem like this is a trend that's happening willy-nilly. In all my decades of dining in Chicago - one of the great food cities anywhere - I've only seen one spot go from a la carte dining to tastings only. My wife and I eat out in finer-dining establishments at least twice a month and have done so for easily more than a decade. We've hit about 6 tasting-menu restaurants in all that time. It just isn't that pervasive and the ratio of non-tasting to tasting at the $50-$100/meal price point is probably greater than 100:1. It's just not going to trickle down.

                              It's simply a different type of restaurant. It's like going to a Brazilian steakhouse and lamenting the absence of good fish options. You aren't obligated to go there, it's not precluding the choice of going to any number of other spots.

                              1. re: ferret

                                This has happened to me three times already at places where I would go to eat sometimes that converted to exclusively tasting menu. I guess it's not happened in Chicago.

                      2. re: Steve

                        I am offended that going out to dinner as a form of entertainment is considered shallow. I find sharing a meal with a group of people and their conversation to be stimulating enough without going to the theatre. I do enjoy other cultural experiences like the theatre but I will eat somewhere that will afford a quicker meal if that is the necessity for some reason.

                        1. re: melpy

                          Forgive me for attempting to clarify what you posted.
                          l believe Steve's point, which is the same view as mine, is that while dining with friends and engaging waitstaff is more than enough entertainment for a meal, having the food and it's plating and pomp being the entertainment is not what we are looking for.
                          Others might and places like El Bulli did it excellently. But after three visits to El Bulli and a few to Alinea, l realized that ' food theater ' was not what l was seeking in a restaurant.

                          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                            I couldn't have said it better myself.

                            1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                              People don't go to Broadway shows every night, they don't attend the ballet every night, they don't eat at Brazilian steakhouses nightly (and in my opinion, should never). In short there are "events" and things we do with greater regularity. There are the types of restaurants I go to a couple times a week, some I'll visit a couple of times a month and others I might do a couple of times a year. They all have a place.

                              1. re: ferret

                                For you perhaps, but if chef's choice with no other options, l opt out.

                                In Philadelphia a highly rated Top Chef winner has just changed to chef's choice only. The clamor for reservations when it opened with normal options was extreme and a very tough ticket. When there before the change l got a chef's choice as with group and others planned, no desire to do it again as was too much food for me.

                                My reason for the changes and there have been 6 in the last month in Philadelphia alone is a restauranteur has a Sat res for 8:00 for a two-top. People come in have two apps each and a glass of wine, a check of $ 70. The place had expected a full meal and a check of $ 200-250 with app, main, dessert, coffee, adult beverage.
                                This dollar differential might be the difference between profitability and not, thus the chef/owner/investor guarantees his price point before the meal happens.

                      3. re: Steve

                        Lots of interesting opinions all 'round. I'll try to make one global response; it might not cover every issue but there's certainly no shortage of ideas!

                        Steve, your (longer) explanation is one of the most plausible and coherent I've seen. Certainly it hadn't occurred to me that the element of theatre would attract people in quite that way. But when you think about it, it makes sense: the people who are likely to patronise the very finest establishments, are going to be, on the whole, people for whom food is the central aspect of their life, and for whom, in some sense, a restaurant meal is one of their major forms of "entertainment". This line of reasoning would hold doubly true for restaurant critics, who, one might naturally expect, would be the very most obsessed of all over food.

                        In that sense, the praise from the public would arise from people who are seeking an Experience, more perhaps even than the best food per se. With respect to the general public, there's nothing wrong with that and it merely reflects one set of priorities. However with respect to the critics, although I don't think they're "ridiculous", I do think this risks conflating entertainment value with quality of the food as such. It seems to me that staging, presentation, menu format etc. more properly belong in the category of "atmosphere" - insofar as they don't directly bear on the food itself but may add to a sense of experience. While critics are, after all, humans and susceptible to the same influences that alter people's perception of the quality of food, based on their overall experience while dining, I do think critics have an added responsiblity to make a clear separation of concerns, because they're speaking to a general audience. I also think ordinary members of the public should be clear about what they're going to a restaurant for - if it's something with strong theatrical value or if it's the quality of the food irrespective of the overall environment in which it's presented. This would be particularly true if asked to provide recommendations to others.

                        Personally, I do criticise the aesthetic in this sense. If, ultimately, the core value of food is in the eating, it seems to me that the taste should prevail above other considerations - and that allowing a sense of showmanship or presentation or theatricality to be a strong factor in your appreciation of a restaurant in that one sense sort of diminishes the value of the food itself. It's as if to say that your appreciation of a painting is affected by its positioning in the gallery.

                        But this is all conjecture on people's motivations.

                        On to other posters.

                        ferret, don't me mistaken, I think there's very definitely an honourable place for the tasting menu. It's a fine thing to place alongside an a la carte or traditional prix-fixe selection. In addition to being a different way to experience eating, it's a great thing if you arrive bewildered for choice amongst an array of options all of which look great. I also agree with you that considerations like time or price or "inconvenience" aren't relevant as long as you know in advance what you're signing onto.

                        BUT, I do think that the trend towards tasting-menu-ONLY at the very top establishments has the effect of limiting the very best food to a group of people with one particular set of dining priorities, and to some extent a common ideology. It requires that, as the diner, you're essentially indifferent to what's on the plate, in the sense of the type of food on offer or the ingredients used. It's a model that starts to look more like a private club - and if that's what top chefs actually want to do, perhaps they should change from a public restaurant to a private club. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, if there were plenty of alternatives *at the same level of ambition, technical execution, and ingredient quality*, in a given city, but in some cases that's not happening. I discovered this on a recent trip to New York - you can look up the conversation on the Manhattan board, where I was advised that essentially ALL the very best restaurants had gone tasting-menu-only. For a city the size of New York, that seems absurd and one-sided, and a diminishment of the dining scene.

                        (Which, interestingly, is a good example for ipsedixit's benefit, although personally I do think citing examples for what is a broad *pattern* rather than an absolute *rule* isn't a particularly convincing argument.)

                        LeoLioness, I don't debate the technical "degree of difficulty" involved in a typical tasting menu in an *absolute* sense, but in a *relative* sense it does make things easier for a restaurant because there are far fewer variables to coordinate, and those that exist can be carefully structured. Notwithstanding, however, I also think that evaluating food based on degree of difficulty is rather beside the point. It's not, in my view about how technically hard a given dish is, but whether it tastes great. A great steak, or a great crème brulée, for example, are almost trivial in the execution but when done really well can be unimaginably sublime. It seems to me that you go to a restaurant to eat, not to experience the technical prowess of the chef (as such).

                        John Francis - I would disagree that the tasting menu is the most daring thing a restaurant can do - as pointed out because it's so structured, in many ways it's a risk-minimisation exercise. But in any case neither fixed nor variable format should have any particular necessary impact on what the kitchen can produce in terms of quality. It's merely a matter of assigning specialisations. In a high-end restaurant, with teams of cooks, you give each person, ideally two: a "master" and an "understudy", a small range of dishes to focus on and make their "own". They become the consummate experts in that, and so the question of "a few dishes they do best" becomes a non-issue.

                        I also think the idea of being "as if you're a guest in someone's home" is losing the sense of what a restaurant is. You're NOT a guest in someone's home, and for that matter, if that's the experience you want, why not simply visit good friends often? Of course it may be unlikely that your friends have chef-level cooking skills, and even if they did, "inviting yourself" around too often isn't very social, but then that's what restaurants *are* for - if the priority is to be the food, then a top restaurant is a great choice. If the priority is a social evening, then going to friends is better. If, however, you want to have a social evening but with great food as well, you're not being clear about your priorities. At best such an outcome will be a matter of luck.

                        I've been blunt and to no small extent provocative here - but don't interpret what I'm saying as summary condemnation of anyone or their views, or for that matter, even mild disrespect. I just want to make sure the issues are aired without dancing around anything.

                        1. re: AlexRast

                          C'mon, Alex, you are actually Frasier, right? I knew it.

                          1. re: AlexRast

                            "While critics are, after all, humans"

                            Oh yeah? Have you ever eaten with one? ;-)

                            Thanks for your support and well said.

                            I have enjoyed tasting menus, and I would rather have one great $$$$ tasting menu than two $$ ordinary or mediocre meals. But I can also find four $ places that blow me away far more than the $$$$ tasting menu. What really frustrates me is when a great chef has no options so that I can no longer partake of his creations unless I go for that $$$$ meal.

                            I am rarely in the market for that kind of experience.

                            It is happening with some frequency where I am from, but apparently this is not the norm in all major cities according to some folks here.

                            1. re: AlexRast

                              "I discovered this on a recent trip to New York - you can look up the conversation on the Manhattan board, where I was advised that essentially ALL the very best restaurants had gone tasting-menu-only."

                              How did you come to this conclusion? Its absolutely not true. All the top end restaurants have tasting menus. Only a handful have only a tasting menu. I think you way overstate the trend.

                              I can think of five or so places that have a tasting menu only format. I can think of many many more that have a la cart and tasting menus. If you were reading the manhattan board, it may seem that that everyone is telling you to go to Per Se (interesting how you used that phrase in your post - Freudian or pun?), Ko or Bklyn Fare but there are many more choices. EMP may seem like its a tasting menu but the grid format gives you choices among the courses.

                              ETA: I did a quick check on the NYT. They have five restaurants with 4 stars: Del Posto, EMP, JG, LeB and Per Se. Off these five, only one, Per Se, has only tasting menus. I've already noted that EMP isn't the same as you make choices in their tasting menu. At the other 3 feel free to chose any and all things from their menus.

                              By the way, I've gotten over the tasting menu format. Used to do it a lot, but now I don't have that kind of time for a meal.

                              1. re: Bkeats

                                It wasn't a conclusion I came to. Again, as I noted, it was how I was advised by people on the Manhattan board. In turn, this was in part due to my own reaction of being happy but not blown away by some supposed top places in New York (e.g Gotham Bar and Grill, Roberto). Following their advice, I decided to try EMP. For the record, they have also gone with a tasting menu format - no choice. See my comments for the complete story on my experience; but the bottom line was - technically excellent but not deliciously sublime. I also went to Annisa on the same visit, a restaurant aiming for the high end following a more traditional pattern. It must be said that the quality was better than EMP, but still felt fell short of what I'd consider a world-class contender.

                                According to the people on the Manhattan board, Le Bernardin and EMP are definitely tasting menu only - for at least one of these I can confirm this is true. BTW, no intended reference to Per Se the restaurant in my previous post - it's a turn of phrase I use quite a bit in many contexts.

                                Again I want to emphasise though that while NY is leaning this way it's not because of the New York scene in particular that I've been asking about this. Other cities are going in similar directions.

                                I do find it strange that one of the primary objections to the tasting menu format is the time involved. As I mentioned, as far as I'm concerned, that's a non-issue: if you're making the booking, you know what you're in for.

                                1. re: AlexRast

                                  LeB is prix fixe and has a tasting menu option but it is not tasting menu only. Please see the menu


                                  LeB is around the corner from my office and I've been many times for lunch/dinner. If someone told you that LeB is tasting only, they've never been or didn't pay attention to the menu.

                                  I like Gotham a lot but I would not rank it among the top places in NYC. Its just a place for a nice dinner or lunch. Pleasant for sure, but among the top? Not in my view. Don't know Roberto so I can't speak to the place.

                                  As to time, if I have a prix fixe dinner of three courses, I can have dinner and be out in about 1 1/2 hours. Some of the 7-12 course tasting menus can take all evening. Its can be a commitment for the whole night. I've had these dinners take upwards of 4 hours. That's why I usually don't order the tasting menu even in non-tasting menu only places.

                              2. re: AlexRast

                                Just saw "When Harry Met Sally" tonight, for the first time.

                                Hear is the telling line:

                                "Restaurants are for people in the 80s what theatre was for people in the 60s."

                                Sad, really.

                            2. Such that the list of "great" restaurants is almost starting to be monopolised by such establishments, while restaurants staying with the traditional format are being downrated. Can anybody explain why?

                              Give an example, please.

                              Otherwise, it just sounds like whining on your part.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                The OP is probably over-stating the case, but it is a distinct trend. When Komi in Washington, DC went to an exclusively tasting menu format, it gained considerable prestige.

                                This is not a criticism of Komi, just stating a fact.

                                1. re: Steve

                                  Komi was acclaimed before the switch.

                                  It was definitely less regarded before the switch but that had to do more with Monis getting his sea legs and the restaurant maturing than purely a menu-formatting issue.

                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    Like I already said, it is not a criticism of the food. Worth it or not, the idea is that a restaurant can shoot to the very top by only coming up with about three great dishes served in small portions, for which you have no choice. The other courses may not even be exemplary, merely good considering the portion size.

                                    Of course, no chef will start up an exclusive tasting menu format if they have no acclaim to begin with, that would be silly.

                                    Take the case of Little Serow vs Bangkok Golden. A $45 tasting menu no-selection restaurant with designer cocktails vs a typical suburban Asian outpost. One gets restaurant-of-the-year nominations, while the other rests in relative obscurity.

                              2. I thought the idea was to specialize and perfect their own dish and give you a taste of exactly what the chef believes is a beautiful dish....? No? Give up entertained and surprised. Fun.

                                There are many restaurants you can go to that accept substitutions, allow you to order whatever you want as you want, etc. in fact....most restaurants are like that. The restaurants you are speaking of, deliver a different experience, not one for everyday. It is supposed to be fun, not an annoyance.