Verjus, top pesto, umeboshi: are restaurant menus becoming more baffling?

<span>‘Menus have always been a linguistic minefield.’</span><span>Illustration: Eric Chow/The Observer</span>
‘Menus have always been a linguistic minefield.’Illustration: Eric Chow/The Observer

You will have seen the advert on TV. The scene: a fancy restaurant dining room where a panicked young man scans a menu full of baffling words – melange, deconstructed, micro agretti – while all the time being scrutinised by his girlfriend’s hard-to-impress parents and a comically imperious waiter. Rescued by a surreptitious web search on his phone, he now knows what gravlax is and can order with confidence. Embarrassment is swerved, lunch is saved.

We’ve all been there. Hands up, who knew what agretti is? No? Had the samphire-like marsh grass appeared as monk’s beard, the name chefs prefer, would that have helped? Thought not.

Menus have always been a linguistic minefield. Arguably, the situation is worse than ever. Verbose, large-format menus, as satirised in the above advert, are now rare, relics from the 1990s. What has replaced them – concise, preposition-free dish descriptions – can be equally confusing. From Michelin-starred kitchens to neighbourhood small-plate restaurants, many chefs seek to convey a dish’s key attributes in as few words as possible. If you’re lucky, you might get as many as eight. Often, you might have to make do with just four or five, which may conceal as much as they reveal. Think: barbecued greens, bottarga, nori butter.

Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, was already talking about “shopping list” menu descriptions in 2014, as co-author of The Perfect Meal. He suggests their proliferation may reflect a long-term shift to a more relaxed style of dining. “It does fit with the informal, casual and a lack of pretentiousness,” says Spence, whose work often focuses on food. “Abbreviation might go along with a focus on simplicity and that ingredients will speak for themselves.”

Which may surprise anyone confused by this new shorthand’s love of Japanese and French elements (verjus, mignonette, umeboshi, koshihikari) or the tendency to name-drop ingredients by variety – crown prince (squash), lion’s mane (mushrooms), Cornish mids (potatoes) – with no further explanation. Did you miss the memo about the acronym Evoo (extra virgin olive oil)? You were not alone. Nor in struggling to translate giardiniera or what “ex-dairy” means in beef. Is “top pesto” enthusiasm or information? We can only guess.

It would be easy to dismiss this as showing off. Sometimes, it is. Chef Sam Grainger, the co-owner of restaurants in Liverpool and Manchester, admits that when he opened Belzan in 2017 he was guilty of using “stupid words people don’t understand”.

This was partly a misguided attempt to impress diners, partly the private language used by chefs spilling onto the menu: “We live in our own world. It’s all you talk about in the kitchen, all you see on Instagram, it just becomes what you call [things]. If you didn’t, maybe you’d be looked down upon by other restaurants, [they would think] you’re not cool.”

Grainger is older and wiser now, but still defends limited, judicious use of what some may consider curveball dish descriptions. A Belzan dish of “salt-baked celeriac, mushrooms a la Grecque, peppercorn sauce” could have listed “lightly pickled mushrooms” to get across the same idea of flavour but, he says, “every time we write pickled mushrooms, people are, ‘Eugh, sounds horrible.’ If you say certain things are pickled that aren’t usually, people freak out.”

Likewise, how do you describe garum, a fermented fish sauce, in a way that is both pithy and appealing? Or explain vadouvan, a French curry powder, without sounding clunky or doubly confusing? People may not understand such terminology but in venues aimed at a curious, food-literate audience, such as Belzan, that might sometimes be a plus. “You don’t want people to feel like an idiot sat at the table,” says Grainger, but creating “points on a menu where [the staff] can impart knowledge” can help to foster an engaging, experiential environment. Some chef-owners want diners “to ask questions and feel involved with staff and the restaurant”. Grainger also admits, “There’s definitely a customer who thinks they’re eating somewhere new and funky because they don’t understand the words.”

Quite when and why menus began to get shorter and more opaque is moot. St John was an early exponent, as noted in The Perfect Meal. Often it is a matter of individual preference. At Lyle’s in east London, James Lowe maintains an unorthodox style of capital letters and ampersands. Example: Bolting Greens, Nasturtium & Cured Egg Yolk. “The order is important,” he says. “It needs to sound right, like a law firm.”

Fashionable restaurants favour a tight, rather technical code of buzzwords to create an appetising sense of expertise and quality

Lowe is reluctant to include a cooking descriptor such as fried or roasted unless it is applied to something potentially unfamiliar, such as grilled cockles. “I don’t like the idea of selling or pitching,” he says. “I don’t like fluff and ornamentation.” Lyle’s dining room is “clean and utilitarian” and its menu is a “list of ingredients because talking about the ingredients is very important”.

Speed matters, too, as Lowe writes menus daily. He can put fish on his a la carte lunch menu that might arrive at 11am. There is no time to prevaricate over descriptions or worry about which words on today’s menu might flummox guests. “I don’t know what the average person versus the average foodie versus our most regular customer knows about food. We create a friendly environment where if people want to ask questions they can.”

Issues of practicality are not to be underestimated. Grainger has a theory that as printing costs skyrocketed, restaurants moved to printing A4 menus in-house, forcing chefs to be concise.

Descriptions now generally lead with the dish’s star ingredient, usually protein, then two or three key components. That rarely covers every detail of what will arrive on the plate, particularly finishing oils and garnishes, or how each component is cooked. Si Toft, the chef-owner at Abseroch’s the Dining Room says, “If a dish has three carrot elements you’re not going to list them all. You go, these are the flavour profiles, this is what the dish is, leave it with me.”

Short as dish descriptions may be, ingredients that might be polarising (olives, mushrooms, anchovies, chilli heat), potentially divisive states (raw scallops) and unusual combinations tend to be prioritised, to preempt complaints. “I had pork cheek with rice pudding on, worded to make the point that [sage rice pudding] is an integral element,” says Toft. “If you don’t like the idea, don’t have it just because you like pork.”

And if a dish doesn’t sell as well as expected? A chef may fiddle with the wording or position on the menu. (Tip: never put two potential bestsellers side by side, diners will choose one rather than both.) More fundamentally, a chef could rework the dish. “Wild garlic will sell everything,” says Lowe, along with “at the start of the season, peas or green asparagus”.

There is a theatrical element to this style of menu writing: revealing little in the description but over-delivering on the plate. At Edinburgh’s Heron, “Monkfish Squash | Mussel | Chipotle | Juniper” and “Langoustine | Cucumber | Plum” barely hint at the complexity to follow. The latter is a squid-ink croustade batter cup filled with a nori creme patissiere, diced raw langoustine dressed with olive oil, cucumber, fermented plum jelly and gel, and fresh plum. “That’s just a canapé,” says the chef-owner, Sam Yorke.

“Allow us to surprise you. It makes it exciting,” he says, a rationale shared by many chefs.

Do you need an established reputation to warrant this level of trust from diners? Possibly. Before getting a Michelin star in 2023, Heron was struggling, says Yorke. The star “turned everything around. Until now, I haven’t considered that the menu format was potentially an issue. In hindsight, possibly. We definitely got a few comments saying, ‘You can’t really tell what the dishes are.’ Now, we don’t need to reveal too much because there is that accolade to back us.”

Traditional, lyrically expansive menus still exist, but in general there is now little use of the flowery (drizzled, nestled, medley) or sensual, enthusiastic language (creamy, tender, signature, indulgent) once thought crucial.

This runs contrary to a suite of techniques known as “menu engineering”, which inform how menus are designed in larger hospitality businesses (most chefs in small, independent restaurants have had no formal training in writing menus). A blend of data analysis and behavioural science intended to maximise sales, menu engineering covers everything from how the eye moves across a menu to how removing pound signs encourages higher spending. Backed by academic research, practitioners of menu engineering have long held that using relatively lavish, descriptive menu language is beneficial. In one US study, such descriptions (“succulent Italian seafood filet” versus “seafood filet”) were shown to increase the positive comments a dish received.

As The Perfect Meal explores, perception of flavour is entwined with prior information. “We’re not very good at identifying flavours,” says Spence. “Hence a longer, more sensory description would likely help the diner perceive the flavour complexity therein.”

Yet menus are heading in the opposite direction. Rochelle Cohen, the founder of PR company Roche Communications, urges clients to cut any “overly ornate” wording “likely to put off critics, as well as coming across as try-hard and old fashioned”.

“Crisp” and “smashed” are among a few textural adjectives to survive the cull. Otherwise, fashionable restaurants favour a tight, rather technical code of buzzwords to create an appetising sense of expertise and quality. Sunny Hodge, a restaurant consultant and the owner of London wine bar Aspen & Meursault, refers to such signifiers as “cultural necessities of the time”. These currently include hip cooking methods (barbecued, salt baked, chargrilled); artisan skills (home-cured, air-dried, aged); provenance (day boat, new season, named suppliers); or ingredient specifics (heritage breeds). Such terms assert authority and authenticity but, as space is tight, all of this is delivered in one or two words that do a lot of heavy lifting.

A restaurant might once have included biographies of its suppliers on menus. Now, Toft discreetly signals his approach to sourcing and positions the Dining Room within a specific North Walian food culture, by referencing, for example, Pantysgawn and Teifi.

“It’s a nice thing for staff to explain,” says Toft of these Welsh cheeses (you knew that, right?). He could shout about his local, seasonal sourcing but says “it becomes a bit cliched. I don’t feel the need to say it. It’s implied.”

The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal. It is an approximation. How do you capture flavour on a piece of paper?

Glen Montgomery

That brevity and suggestion may have coincided with a declining interest among diners in closely reading longer menus. Annica Wainwright, the co-founder of 2Forks, a menu design consultancy that works with brands such as Pizza Pilgrims and Wahaca, says customers “don’t want to spend long looking and have less appetite for long-winded writing”, and that post-Covid, for many people “the night-out part is often more important than the food”.

Wainwright’s approach of “clarity over cleverness” and analysing “voice of customer data” (for example, online reviews) to capture how a restaurant’s regulars talk about its food differs from the ambiguity preferred by many chefs. But by making their menus snappier, those chefs have, by accident, intuition or observation, caught the national mood.

“Menu overwhelm is real,” says Wainwright. Vast lists of dishes are counterproductive and long explanations of a restaurant’s ethos or history are best delivered as opt-in extras on Instagram: “In the 1990s, the menu was the key source. These days, you can lean on other channels to do the storytelling.”

At Edinburgh’s eòrna, a 12-seat counter dining restaurant, the co-owner and sommelier, Glen Montgomery, thinks we get too hung up on exact descriptions. “The map is not the territory,” he says. “The menu is not the meal. It is an approximation. How do you capture flavour on a piece of paper?”

For more than 200 years, paper menus have proved remarkably resilient. Even if interactive, digital menus one day usurp print, the central issue will remain: diners require guidance with items they do not necessarily understand.

True, they could Google them, but remove that element of service and you erode a fundamental reason people eat out. By 2030, assistance may involve a chat-bot explaining what dulse (seaweed) or crosnes (Chinese artichoke) are in your ear buds. Inevitably, the language used may still be contentious. “I can remember when jus was a pretentious term,” says Montgomery. “Now it’s utterly commonplace. It’s evolution. Someone’s always ahead. It has to start somewhere.”