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The Hidden Meaning of Menus

“House-made sandwiches.”

“Freshly-diced tomatoes.”

From redundant descriptions like those above to flowery hyperbole and “local,”  “organic,”  “farm-raised” speak, menu descriptions can be so silly they feel made up. (And maybe they are. A few former writers from The Onion found menus so ripe for ribbing they created the fake food book FUDS: A Complete Encyclofoodia from Tickling Shrimp to Not Dying in a Restaurant (2015), boasting menu items like “Crumb Selection” and “La Omelette, flattened bright-and-yellow eggies suspended in a smog cloud of polluted cheese.”)

But menu descriptions aren’t all roll-your-eyes buzzwords; research from Dan Jurafsky’s recent book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu (2014) shows menu language can subconsciously say a lot about the restaurant at hand. According to Jurafsky, “linguistic fillers featuring positive but vague words like ‘delicious’ and ‘tasty’ promise something special about what you’re about to order, but in a subjective enough way the restaurant sneakily avoids incurring any obligation.” Perhaps surprisingly, this technique is always associated with lower menu prices.

Jurafsky’s hypothesis about this is that “empty words are linked with lower prices because they are in fact fillers; stuff you put in the description of a dish when you don’t have something really valuable like crab or porterhouse to talk about instead.” Linguist Mark Liberman adds that they help relieve “status anxiety”—expensive restaurants don’t use words like “ripe” or “fresh” because quality ingredients are expected, but middle-priced restaurants are worried you won’t assume you’re getting good food because you are paying less. So they go out of their way to reassure you of the food’s value by showcasing their “real” whipped cream and “fresh” cheeses.

“We don’t use words like ‘delicious’ to describe our food—instead we focus on describing the ingredients and cooking process the best we can, but in an artistic manner,” says The Refectory’s Richard Blondin, who has conceived and created all of The Refectory’s menus since he became executive chef in 1992. Owner Kamal Boulos adds his two cents, as does The Refectory office and service staff, but ultimately the final language is up to Chef Blondin. The role can be crucial to a dish’s success.

“We have had experiences with a dish not selling well, so we changed the description of the food and immediately saw an increase in orders, even though the food was exactly the same as before,” Blondin said. “It can take a few days to come up with a beautiful phrase to describe a dish, but it’s very important.

“I also always write a menu on an empty stomach,” he laughed. “It’s the only way to come up with the perfect words.”

And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Or in this case, reading. Compare the salmon entree at The Refectory with one at Max & Erma’s:

Refectory: Norwegian salmon with parsley crust quenelle, lobster ravioli, cream of spinach sauce.

Max & Erma’s: Lemon-Herb Grilled Salmon: Flame-broiled lemon-rosemary-marinated Atlantic salmon. Topped with freshly grilled asparagus and paired with fresh spring greens, roasted tomatoes and a balsamic vinaigrette drizzle.

Notice that “fresh” is mentioned twice in the Max & Erma’s entree, which is nearly $20 less expensive than The Refectory entree.

Status anxiety relieved.