I was at a restaurant the other night and something about the menu seemed… off. It was so sparse. It was just a concise list of foods, most of which I wanted to eat, with no twee adjectives or obscure farm names in sight. Though I was happy about it at the time, it only made me realize that I have an advanced case of CMF (Chronic Menu Fatigue)—and you might too. It’s the general feeling you get when you go to a restaurant and realize every word or phrase on the menu is there to make you feel, in one way or another, unqualified to eat the food. Here is a list of the most annoying and/or pretentious words and phrases that trigger the symptoms.
10. Unnecessary French words
Many don’t realize this, but the literal translation of haricots verts is “green beans that you can charge at least 20% more for because people grossly overvalue Western European food.” I know, it seems like the two wouldn’t match up word-for-word, but they totally do. The same thing goes for pommes puree (mashed ‘taters, for all intents and purposes), aubergine (eggplant), and framboise (raspberries). We can add in an exception for bavette, because anything to get the words “flap meat” off the menu is pretty reasonable.
9. Nonsensical menu categories
Blame Starbucks. When they went all “tall, grande, venti” on the world, it kicked off a trend of food places sacrificing information for clever branding. Even though the conventions of “appetizer, entree, dessert” have completely gone out the window for most restaurants—and good riddance—that doesn’t mean you have to stoop to breaking the menu down into “Tiny Temptations, Mouthfuls, and #’DaSweetStuff.”
8. Share plates, small plates, and family-style
At least when you have nonsensical menu categories, you know they’re meaningless right off the bat. It’s a different ball game when the menu has words that you think you understand, only to find out that all conventions of language have been thrown out the window. Small plates are plates that are small, got it. Share plates: those are bigger dishes, meant to share with many people, right? Oh no, they’re the same as small plates, never mind, that’s my bad. Family style! Now these are the big, hearty dishes I’m meant to divvy—wait, why are there three fried smelt here, and how do I split them among four people? And why did this cost $22?
7. Foams and other magic tricks
I thought we killed it. I thought we had successfully shamed every chef in the world into no longer flexing their knowledge of basic molecular gastronomy at the expense of our food. But after eating an otherwise tasty hamachi crudo that was topped off with a vaguely citrus-scented mound of shaving cream, I realized that I was wrong. Now is the time to be more vigilant than ever. What if, at the beginning of every meal, the chef came out to your table, stared you in the face, and said, “I know how to pour liquid nitrogen on stuff.” You could bow, or clap, or how ever else you want to validate their skill, then they would never have to make those things ever again.
6. Name dropping the farm
When the farm-to-table movement started, this was probably a cool thing to do. And it still is, sometimes; I like being able to eat a salad at Sweetgreen or a sandwich at Mendocino Farms and know that they’re supporting local agriculture. But if you’re a sit-down restaurant charging $20+ per “small plate,” we should assume—and you should assume that we assume—that you’re using the best local produce available and not getting a Sysco truck full of peewee potatoes every day. There also needs to be some sort of quota for how many times a single farm can be name-dropped on a menu before it gets retired for good.
5. Words that mean literally nothing
You know what’s really similar to a “curated” selection of cheeses? A selection of cheeses. The fact that you were able to wrangle them up in such an organized fashion as to fit them on a plate already implies you’ve done the correct amount of curating. The same concept applies to the words “artisanal,” “natural,” and “hand-selected”. First, everything should be selected with your hands. They are nature’s selectors—the perfect appendage for which to grab things. And though the rise of food artisans is undoubtedly a good thing, the more we use the word, the less special it becomes. Natural? It’s such a bullshit word that some legislators are actually trying to ban it from food packaging because it misleads customers.
4. Foraged anything
Like any L.A.-area kid with hoop dreams, I’d yell “Kobe!” every time I threw a paper towel into a trashcan. I like to imagine that when L.A. chefs sprinkle a bit of foraged milk thistle or stinging nettle into a puree, they yell “Noma!” I appreciate the spirit of it, eating plants that are native to the area is a good thing, but you’re not exactly gathering up wild mosses in an otherwise unarable environment. Isn’t the point of having the best produce in America that you don’t have to go foraging?
3. Deconstructed anything
No one has ever eaten a dish and thought, “You know what, this is great, it’s just too damned constructed.” You went through all that work to make a cake, and now you’re going to smear the frosting on the bottom of the plate, rip the pastry to shreds, then make it look like all the ingredients magically rained from the sky and happened to fall pseudo-artfully on the table? Why? Why would you do that? It’s like we reached such an indulgent point in our culinary culture that we now have the luxury of tearing it all down, one cheeky play on a deconstructed cheesesteak at a time.
2. Single-word dish descriptions
You’ve all seen them. “Beef / Mushroom / Whey / Flavor of Autumn,” the menu might say, begging you to ask the only appropriate question: lol, what? Is it a seared rib eye? Braised beef cheeks? And I’m assuming with the whole “flavor of Autumn” thing, you’re just going to dust the entire plate of mystery beef with pumpkin pie spice, yeah? Though I will concede that playing the guessing game with haiku-esque menus is still better than a menu that inserts its own qualitative adjectives. You don’t get to decide if your acorn squash velouté is silky, restaurant. That’s my job.
1. Menu substitutions politely declined
As a chef-as-artist apologist, I can only sympathize with this one. If you’re eating at a restaurant that’s worth a damn, you should be there to experience the food exactly as the chef intends to prepare it (barring any food allergies, of course). Arbitrarily subbing out ingredients in a dish simply because you think you don’t like them would be like asking Led Zeppelin to play without Jon Bonham because drums “just aren’t really your thing”. However, if you look at the definition of pretentiousness—the unpleasant quality of people who want to be regarded as more impressive, successful, or important—this falls right in line.