The Allure of Restaurant Menus

“Very good, and for you, sir?”

You is me and I just don’t know. “What I will have…obviously…is…. What I shall in fact have is the…the….”

Now, this kind of dithering is very much not what I’m about. You can ask anyone. When it comes to acting decisively it’s been said that I make George W. Bush look like Prince Hamlet after a bong hit, and I think that’s about right.

But all of that goes out the window, for some reason, the moment I enter a restaurant and am presented with its menu, even more so while traveling. I’m at Llansantffraed Court, in the Welsh countryside, contemplating dinner. But how can one possibly order the “Breast of Wye Valley chicken, sage and white onion risotto” if it means passing up the “Pan fried line caught seabass, crushed new potatoes, and citrus foam”? Every ambitious menu is a highly specific cultural artifact, reflecting a place, its language and flavors, and this one has reduced me to a state of mildly trancelike paralysis.

Yet for some of us it is ever thus. For some of us the job of choosing from the menu in a restaurant of any quality is always complicated by the knowledge that the act of choosing will be followed, swiftly and cruelly, by the removal of the menu, for which loss the ensuing plates of food are but partial compensation. For some of us, menus provide a pleasure unconnected to, or at least not reducible to, the anticipated pleasures of the dishes on offer, and this is as true today in the age of online menus and phone-dwelling restaurant “apps” as it ever was.

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