“Would you like a light or a magnifying glass?” asks the waitress. We’re at Barrel House in Beverly and the dining room is dark, the kind of dark you find thousand fathoms down in the Challenger Deep. (This is a great place to go on a date if you’re ugly.) I decline the house spelunking gear and instead use my phone to illuminate the text. Everyone else is doing the same thing. The place looks like a vigil or a really low-key concert. Let’s see those lighters in the air for our next act, Tasso Ham!
Barrel House was good, food-wise, but the menu itself was another story. Besides the fact that it was only legible to owls, the menu also got a little bit preachy toward the bottom, where diners are informed that the restaurant proudly composts its scraps. Mmm, nothing gets my appetite revved up like the thought of chicken carcasses and coffee grounds decomposing under the summer sun. But not to worry, Barrel House, for you’re far from alone when it comes to crimes of the menu.
Once upon a time, a menu told you what you could order at a restaurant, with a succinct description and price. That’s all that was offered and all that anyone required. But along the way the menu became a statement itself, a declaration of intent. Menus are now expected to establish the mood of a restaurant, burrow into your psyche and seed your expectations. The result is a proliferation of excessively florid, overwrought, self-satisfied and often incomprehensible verbiage. And I’m not just saying this as a person who orders by combo number and prefers that my menus include blurry photos, puns and lamination. Menus are getting out of control. I think we’re about a month away from pulling up to the Dunkin’s drive-through and ordering a half-dozen farm-to-table sucrose orbs finished with a hand-hammered crystalline glaze and served in a locally sourced biodegradable satchel. Or, as it used to be called, a bag of Munchkins.
For example, last month I had breakfast at Union in Portland, where a friend of mine glanced at the menu and scoffed, “Housemade raisins? What are they doing, drying grapes up on the roof?” Elsewhere, the Union menu boasted of gathered greens, which made me wonder where one gathers greens in Maine that time of year, other than Hannaford’s. Again, the food was great, but the menu was distractingly precious. I think we now know what our English majors have been doing with their degrees. I mean, besides complaining about menus.
While there is undoubtedly an epidemic of overdone menus, there’s also a countervailing trend of misguided minimalism. This problem usually manifests when a place has about two regular items and then 15 specials that the server reels off as you sit there and nod appreciatively while waiting to reveal that you’ll get the two things that are actually on the menu.
Following this trend to its logical conclusion, The New York Times Magazine recently ran a profile of a waitress at a Wisconsin restaurant that has no printed menu at all. She just recites everything verbally, harking back to the age before written language, when tales were passed betwixt the generations through oral storytelling. It sounds really annoying. And that’s also how messages get mixed up, so that over the years “ham omelet” evolves into “clam grommet,” until eventually a humble diner becomes a molecular gastronomy destination famed for its clam grommets and flancakes with marble stirrups.
Lest I come off like an inveterate whiner or start finding my food served with a side of house-made resentment, I should point out that not everyone has succumbed to the temptation to script a six-part miniseries around each slice of cheese in a hoagie. At Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental, the menu is more like a scrawled grocery list. There’s not much backstory. For instance, the description of the classic burger reads, “beef patty, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, onions.” That’s like how Raymond Carver would describe a burger. While the Bar Boulud menu still offers some linguistic challenges, that’s mainly on account of all the Frenchness, which can’t be helped. Oddly, the one place on the menu where they tamp down the Français is the “Burgundy style snails.” If only the French language offered a more appealing word for snails.
Of course, while I rail against obnoxious menus, I’m not above making obnoxious menu requests myself, as I recently did one morning when flying out of Logan. Here was my theory: Legal Sea Foods was the best restaurant near my gate. The lobster roll is the best thing at Legal’s. Therefore I should ask for a lobster roll and a bloody mary for breakfast. Which is what I got, because I eat lobster for breakfast and live by nobody’s rules but my own. It was stupendous. In fact, I think they should put it on the breakfast menu with a nice blurry photo. Call it the Claw and Poured’Er. Combo number one.