In Praise of Short Menus

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This week The Washington Post published an article noting a trend towards smaller menus in large, corporate restaurants. The Olive Gardens and TGI Fridays, among others, have found increasing utility in streamlined menus, compared to their previous offerings, which literally read like a book covered with sticky honey mustard sauce.

The article made me think back to a review I wrote two years ago of Ten Bells Tavern in Oak Cliff. I praised chef Carlos Mancera's short, tight menu that I said was leading the charge on improving the state of bar food here in Dallas. Even though that WaPo article was written with regards to large restaurant chains, there's a lot to be gleaned for a local restaurant scene. In fact, it would be nice to see an increasing number of local restaurants take this cue from the big, commercial restaurant businesses. (How often does one say that?)

McDonald's is looking to streamline its menus. Chief operating officer Tim Fenton says his company needs to do " fewer products with better execution." While you could easily argue his time would be better spent creating food that doesn't taste like suffering animals, he makes a great point. It's easier to hone execution when a kitchen isn't tasked with the preparation and plating of scores of different dishes.

It's very common that when menus start to offer too many dishes, some of those dishes suffer. Nearly every menu I encounter has at least a few duds lurking on it's pages, so why not get rid of them so the dishes that are executed well shine a little more brightly.

The corporate guys also talk about the lowered food costs and waste associated with smaller menus. I don't think those savings would trickle down to the customer here in Dallas, but It's likely that reduced food costs across the board would allow Dallas chefs to purchase higher quality ingredients. Get rid of that second fish dish, and suddenly the burgers are made from prime, house-ground beef.

The article hypothesizes that much of these changes are driven by a more intelligent customer base that values quality over quantity, and if that's true, it's great news. The only way the majority of our restaurants are going to commit to better execution is if customers demand it. Hopefully this corporate trend continues to influence smaller restaurants, and more local restaurants won't think they have to offer sprawling menus to compete. Smaller menus mean better food for all of us. And to think: some day we might not have to crane our necks to look over our menus to keep eye contact with our dates.

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