Whether we go out to dine, order online or grab a sack of burgers from McDonald’s on our way home, we use a familiar tool to decide what to get. But it’s one we seldom even think about though it ultimately impacts our budget and our food.
“We just take menus for granted, that’s one of the things that was so intriguing to me,” says Alison Pearlman who may be one of the few people who doesn’t. She first started collecting them when traveling with her parents and respective step-parents as a teen throughout the United States and Europe. Now Pearlman, an art historian and food aficionado, has written May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and The Art of Persuasion (Agate 2018; $16), which takes a look at menus ranging from gourmet restaurants to fast food and casual chains and those in between.
File it under “it’s a hard job but someone has to do it,” in researching her book, Pearlman visited over 60 restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area where she dined, collected or photographed menus and documented her experiences.
“It added up to 77 visits because I visited restaurants multiple times so I could try the drive-thru and the eat-in and I went to Applebee’s in one location and then to a different Applebee’s over the course of my research after the Applebee’s chain started to roll out these tablet menus and so I went to an Applebee’s that had one of those” says Pearlman, an art historian, who also tried three different versions of a Domino pizza mobile ordering app.
As Pearlman views it, menus aren’t just a piece of paper (or a chalk board or sign above the counter), they’re living documents.
“It’s a piece of the performance,” says Pearlman. “The servers, the interior design and the décor all amplify the menu, they’re all part of the environment and I think of them as partners in persuasion. The whole theater of the restaurant and what the menu says has a large role to play in that theater.”
Pearlman research such subjects as how menus are created and why certain looks are chosen, the use of photos, choices offered, descriptive words, tantalizing hints of exotic ingredients and even ordering items not on the menu—the latter making you feel like a total insider.
So why not just order instead of trying to understand why a menu is structured a certain way?
Pearlman says we should care because menus broker a central relationship in our life—that of eating out.
“According to the National Restaurant Association in the United States, restaurants get 48 percent of the money we spend on food,” she says. Research by Toast, a restaurant point-of-sale and management system, indicates that 51% of American diners go out to eat more than once a week.
“Crafty, well-designed menus satisfy both diners and restauranteurs, bringing harmony to the relationship,” says Pearlman. “They do this by limiting our choices in what we can buy and how we can dine while convincing us that what they’re offering is what we want. It’s really not too much to say they impact our happiness.”
As for Pearlman’s relationship with menus, after writing her book, she says she has lost her innocence.
“I look at them in a totally different way,” she says.