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Food with a story lets operators express themselves, attract guests

Rivera, a 100-seat restaurant in Los Angeles, is divided into three dining rooms, each with its own menu designed to tell the 3,000-year story of Latin cuisine. In the Sangre room, guests can dine on the foods of Spain and Portugal; South American food can be had in Samba; and the food of Mexico and the American Southwest is served at Playa Bar. 

Also available is a menu called Conexiones, which features dishes that make connections between the old and new worlds, from one country to another or from past to present.

“Restaurants are repositor-
ies of culture,” said chef-owner John Rivera Sedlar. “Our goal is to personify ... to [show] who we are as a people, why we eat these foods today.”

Beyond his passion for his Latin heritage and a desire to educate diners, Sedlar’s food that tells a story is a tactic for differentiating his restaurant.

“There are 48,000 restaurants in L.A.; 28,000 are full-service. We are in competition with every one,” said Sedlar. “[Today’s diners] are open to various experiences beyond eating the food. ... I think diners want more.”

Food that tells a compelling story is increasingly showing up on menus of independent restaurants across the country as restaurateurs try to find inventive ways to appeal to diners beyond the common denominators of food, value and ambience. 

Among Rivera’s many complex dishes with a rich history is the “horse latitudes,” a traditional preparation of Atlantic cod with classic Spanish ingredients, such as chorizo, artichokes, garbanzo beans and spinach. The dish’s name refers to a place in the Atlantic Ocean near the equator where Spanish voyagers would throw their horses overboard to lighten their load and enable them to sail on in the lightest winds. 

While diners can learn a bit about the history of the dishes from the detailed menu or from the well-trained servers, they also can do so on their cell phones. As if at a food history museum, they can dial up a phone number at the bottom of each menu, enter numbers listed alongside items and then hear Sedlar’s recorded voice explain the backstory and inspiration behind selected dishes. 

Octavia’s Porch, on New York’s Lower East Side, is named after the main thoroughfare in Rome’s Jewish ghetto.

There, chef and co-owner Nikki Cascone, inspired by her own Jewish-Italian background and world travels, tells the story of Jewish food beyond the classic New York Jewish deli. 

“I think it’s time to expose people to the history [of Jewish food] ... the connections between all of the cooking through their culture, how it translates though all of the world,” Cascone said.

Octavia’s Porch has a bistro-style menu with Cascone’s modern versions of Jewish food as influenced by various cultures around the globe. For example, she honors Jews in Shanghai with her kreplach, beef-and-veal-stuffed dumplings served with an Asian dipping sauce. Sweet potato latkes with a roasted jalapeño lime crème fraîche are an homage to Jews in Mexico. And, in a nod to Turkish Jews, her jelly doughnuts, or “sinkers,” have peanut butter and jelly.

“[There is] no origin of each dish,” Cascone said. “There are so many different influences on each plate.”

To further immerse guests in Jewish cuisine and culture, Cascone also offers family-style mock Sabbath dinners for up to eight guests in the private Chef’s Room.

At Zaré at Fly Trap in San Francisco, chef-owner Hoss Zaré introduces diners to a modern version of the Persian food he ate growing up in Tehran.

“The whole idea is doing Persian food with a twist,” said Zaré, who serves his meals family style in smaller portions, in line with modern dining in San Francisco. “A meal should be telling stories, not just [having customers] eat and leave,” he added 

One item that has diners talking and staying awhile is the Kufteh Tabrizi, a meatball dish inspired by the traditional Persian meatballs his mother used to make, named after her hometown of Tabriz.

MORE: Hoss Zaré on how to make Kufteh Tabrizi

Zaré’s two-pound meatballs are made of beef and veal flavored with Persian lime, turmeric, savory, saffron, dried fruits, fresh herbs and torshi, a Persian condiment made of pickled vegetables and herbs. The meatballs are stuffed with another meaty treat — traditionally a whole roasted chicken, although Zaré stuffs his with braised lamb shank. 

Enough to serve four to six, the dish is offered on the restaurant’s Meatball Mondays.

“Anytime I make this it makes me think of growing up,” said Zaré. “Walking home in winter, my mom handing us a bowl with broth and meatballs. Heavenly.”

At Picán in Oakland, Calif., owner Michael LeBlanc spins a tale of integration through his restaurant’s menu.

“The story here is one of inclusiveness, Southern gentility, welcoming ... of bringing multiple cultures together,” LeBlanc said.

Born and raised in the segregated South, LeBlanc attended college in Boston and then embarked on a career in the corporate world. Though his work took him around the globe, he says he still preferred the red beans and rice of his upbringing. At Picán, he blends his simple tastes with influences from other cultures. 

“The menu is comfort food dressed up,” said LeBlanc. “It’s antebellum. At the same time, it is contemporary.”

The menu features combinations of a typically Southern ingredient in an upscale dish, such as the Southern Caesar with Parmesan grits croutons or the Sorghum Lacquered Duck. Other items elevate century-old classics, such as Smoked Gouda Mac ‘N Cheese.

“There’s all sorts of fusion, but the celebration of true Southern food integrated with all of these other various aspects of cooking ... people talk about it,” said 

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, San Matteo is an effort to go beyond pizza and pasta and introduce New Yorkers to the cuisine of Italy’s Campania region, specifically the town of Salerno. Named for the patron saint of the town, where two of the restaurant’s three owners are from, San Matteo’s signature dish is the panuozzo, a made-to-order stuffed pizza dough. Examples include the Panuozzo Caprese, with homemade mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil, and the Panuozzo di Bartolomei, with roast pork, mozzarella and micro arugula.

“Pizza is great, but there’s so much more,” said Maralayna Benvenuto-Scardino, wife of co-owner and chef Vincenzo Scardino. “They saw an opportunity to broaden the discourse of regionality and food. They really wanted to showcase this very regional item ... [and] all of the regional specialties.”

At Stuzzicheria, in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood, owner Gerard Renny endeavored to share the Italian-American food and stories of his childhood in East New York by offering 7 Weeks/7 Recipes. Each week in November and December, the restaurant featured a dish from Renny’s cookbook, “The Men of the Pacific Street Social Club Cook Italian,” a collection of homestyle recipes and the stories behind them.

Among the dishes offered were Renny’s Aunt Vi’s traditional Veal Francese, which she served at Pep’s, a restaurant her family owned; Renny’s father’s version of steak pizzaiola, which he regularly made for father-son dinners after his wife passed away; and a crab sauce served each Christmas Eve as part of the traditional feast of seven fishes. 

“It gives a connection to your guests,” said Renny of sharing the stories. “That’s what you’re trying to do ... make them feel like they are part of something.”

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