Arestaurant’s opening menu is something like the first draft of a book—you can be certain it will undergo several rewrites before it reaches its final form.
Most chefs are aware of this, but they still admit to being a little mystified by the somewhat unpredictable process that takes place once a menu is actually in the hands of the guests.
“The first menu is basically a crap shoot,” says Carol Wallack, chef and co-owner of the year-old Sola in Chicago. “I’ve heard so many chefs say that they put on the menu something they think is perfect, and nobody buys it. It all depends on your audience.”
Menu writing tends to be equal parts art, science and good old-fashioned luck, many chefs say. Creating a reasonable balance of dishes for an anticipated audience marks a good start, but there are a lot of variables that decide what sells and what doesn’t.
Wallack, who refers to herself as a “surfer girl from California,” admits that she was surprised by how well short ribs sell in Chicago at Sola, a contemporary American restaurant with Asian and Hawaiian influences.
“I’m from the West Coast, and I didn’t know what short ribs were until I moved to Midwest,” she says. “I guess I knew they would sell, but I never thought they would sell like they do. We can’t keep enough short ribs in the house.”
Wallack estimates that the 90-seat restaurant sells between 160 pounds and 200 pounds of short ribs a week. The short ribs are braised in a mixture of miso, scallions, ginger, mirin, hoisin and lime for about six hours. The dish is priced at $22.
Another item whose popularity surprised her was chilled beet salad made with roasted golden and red beets and served with blood orange vinaigrette, shaved fennel, cumin and sesame seeds.
“It’s a great dish, but I just didn’t think people would like beets so much,” she says.
Other dishes sell well at particular times, she notes. For example, Wallack says lobster is popular on Saturday nights, but not necessarily on weeknights.
“On the weekends, we’re a destination restaurant,” she says, “but on the weeknights we’re a neighborhood place. Sometimes it feels like we’re catering to two audiences.”
While a chef might develop a menu based on what he or she expects will hit the mark with a restaurant’s customer base, most would agree there are no sure things in this business. Telly Hatzigeorgiou of New York’s Flatiron Restaurant Group says a number of significant alterations have had to be made to the menu at the 11-month-old Parea, a modern Greek restaurant.
Initially, he wanted to offer meze-style dishes—small portions served on 4-inch-by-4-inch plates for about $7 each.
“We wanted to give guests a more extensive experience of Greek cuisine and not have them order just one appetizer and one entrée,” Hatzigeorgiou says. “But we found that people weren’t happy with that, so we ended up going to larger-size portions.”
At the same time, he says New York diners had been “conditioned” to expect a certain type of Greek food.
“We’re more modern Greek, but people would come in and say, ‘Where are the lamb chops, where’s the moussaka, the spinach pie?’” he says. “So we compromised and added some dishes like that.”
The restaurant dropped a few items for other reasons, he says. For example, the opening menu offered lamb’s brain salad, which finally was pulled not because customers weren’t ordering it, but because lamb’s brains were not always that easy to find.
The initial menu also included chilled octopus served in a salad with black-eyed peas, but since customers were more comfortable eating octopus warm, the kitchen changed the dish to accommodate prevailing tastes.
“We started the menu with a ‘build your own burger’ section,” Hatzigeorgiou says. “But we found that most people generally didn’t want that kind of choice. You always have to listen to the customer.”
At the six-month-old Copia—named for the Roman goddess of wealth and abundance—in Charlestown, Mass., chef and co-owner Anthony Caturano initially set out to offer a Mediterranean-style menu that would help differentiate the operation from Prezza, his Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End. Nevertheless, he says he found himself having to tweak the menu along the way. While preparations like paella, wood-grilled meats and some Greek dishes have been retained, he had to pare several dishes that overlapped too closely with the menu at Prezza.
“Initially, some items on the menu were a little too similar to Prezza, so we made some changes,” says Caturano, who opened the 200-seat restaurant last year with partner David Petrilli.
The original menu included yellowtail served raw with fava bean purée, but he removed it “because it was like something Prezza might offer.”
Instead of removing several items altogether from the menu, Caturano decided to adjust the preparation. For example, duck was originally roasted, but it is now prepared on a rotisserie. Nor have all Italian dishes been removed either. A $26 breaded pork chop stuffed with cheese and served with vinegar peppers was deemed to be Prezza-style, but it still ended up making the cut.
“It’s kind of related to Prezza, but it sells well,” he says.
At the eight-week-old Aigre Doux Restaurant &Bakery in Chicago, partner Zubair Giyas says some items on the original menu sell consistently—like Colorado rack of lamb and organic roasted chicken with truffle glaze, pommes de terre and broccolini. By the same ticket, other dishes, like mussels in a coconut curry sauce, tend to be “up and down.”
“Either we would sell 10 orders or else we wouldn’t sell any,” Giyas says. “We could never figure out why.”
As a result, the restaurant stopped serving mussels as an entrée and made it available in a smaller portion as an appetizer.
Other dishes took off right away at the 74-seat restaurant. A $14 Niman Ranch burger served on a brioche bun and accompanied by fries has been a big seller at lunch and dinner, Giyas says.
Amador Mora, who spent the past 23 years cooking with Dean Fearing at the celebrated Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, opened Trece Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Lounge as executive chef last summer, also in Dallas.
While many fans followed him from the Mansion to Trece, Mora says he was ready to try something new. One item he was confident would appeal to the new restaurant’s clientele was a lobster mango margarita, which he characterizes as a cross between a cocktail and an appetizer. Served in a margarita glass, it calls for mango and cucumber essence, tequila, agave nectar, freshly squeezed lime juice, grilled and diced jícama, diced mango, diced avocado and 2 ounces of cooked lobster. It is served with house-made jalapeño crackers and sells for $13.
Mora also was sure that offering guacamole prepared tableside would be popular with guests. In fact, it has become a breakout success, with more than 1,800 orders being sold in January alone. Specially trained servers man three specially outfitted guacamole carts and prepare the dish tableside as ordered. The price is $11 for two.
On the other hand, Mora introduced a tortilla soup made with ancho tomato broth, pulled chicken, pico de gallo, queso fresco and avocado crema that has only done lackluster business.
”It’s a great soup, and people who order it love it,” he says. “But it doesn’t sell well. Still, it’s a good dish, and I don’t plan to take it off. I want to have at least one soup on the menu.”