19 February 2017


Gwen restaurant, Los Angeles. View of open-fire grill at the back wall of the restaurant interior. Photo by author, 2-18-17.
In the main dining room at Gwen restaurant in Hollywood, there's a cunning presentation of choices. It starts with a look at one of the tasting menus. Will you have the three-course or the five? The prices seem low. $85 for the five? A bargain, you think. This can't be all.

It's not. That is just the overture. The tasting menu is the baseline. Then comes a "supplements" list. But it's no mere addendum. It seems more like the main event. The list is as long as the longest tasting menu, and parades a tantalizing selection of eminently distinguished meats. The prices reflect that. Some, like the 80-day dry-aged beef from Creekstone Farms and, of course, the top-tier wagyu, are over twice the cost of the entire five-course tasting menu.

You go for it. "Go big or go home," you toss caution, and half a month's rent, to the wind. Once ensconced in the dining room at Gwen, even before your platter of meat arrives, there's a good chance you'll feel that the splurge is worth it. Why?

The decor has you in a decadent mood. A restaurant menu never had a conspirator so good. See for yourself. The full-length view of ravishing embers, and the platform above it for specialty cuts, continuously jostled into a sequence of stations based on doneness and resting phases, will rile you. The action never gets dull. And you can't miss it. It's the visual anchor, literally the central feature of the restaurant.

Do you have the choice to abstain? Of course. But people say the same about sex.


22 January 2017


Digital menu board at Neri's Restaurant, Koreatown, Los Angeles. Photo by Jamisin Matthews.
Digital menu boards have been slower to launch in the United States than in Europe or Asia. It's unclear to me exactly why. Perhaps there's a cultural dimension relating to differences in taste. Perhaps it has to do with business structures and startup costs. Dear readers, what do you think?

The matter is complicated by the fact that digital systems can vary greatly in capabilities and cost. Some are just TV screens showing a digital file of a static menu. The menu changes only when you revise the digital file. If you go with this cheaper option, you'll get the up-to-date look of a digital menu. But you'll sacrifice some of the fancy dynamics you can get with systems for which you'll pay high startup costs and monthly maintenance fees. These might include moving or rotating images; real-time variable pricing, whereby prices change throughout the day in response to ebbs and flows in consumer demand; and the capacity to change offerings and promotions as often as the weather or current events. As you might guess, the most complex systems are more likely to be adopted by large chain restaurants. They have the budgets to start and sustain them and the impetus to vary menu contents and prices by hour and region.


14 January 2017


Cake Monkey, bakery, Los Angeles, 12-31-16
To pick up some mini-cakes for a New Year's Eve celebration, I stopped into Cake Monkey. The bakery is as full of menus--above the counter, on the counter--as it is the sweets they advertise.

As a merchandising effort, this one impressed me the most. The full mini-cake lineup had a heart-warming esprit de corps. Even more savvy was the partnership forged between the cross-sectioned cakes and their corresponding labels.

They are ideal complementaries. Look, for example, at the Black and White Cakewich. The verbal description informs you that "Chocolate Crunchy Pearls" are included. I never would have guessed from a view of the sliced cake itself. Meanwhile, there is nothing in the label that conveyed the cake's moist texture and deep color or the mid-line position and satisfying thickness of that buttercream slab.

Bravi, and Happy New Year, Cake Monkey design team!


07 January 2017


The presentation clinches the deal here, doesn't it? To my eye, it's a stunner. At the very least, can you admit this Spicy Chocolate Cake with Avocado Cream, cradled in a green glass that shows off the item's vertical layers and hypes the avocado hue, is an artful effort?

All menus are presentations designed to entice--like this palmed offer from a dessert cart at the now (sadly) closed Rivera restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, like the cart it came from, and like the restaurant housing the cart.

With this post, I present something hopefully appealing to you. It's the start of a new blog series for The Eye in Dining. Under the title This Week's Menu, I'll bring you brief annotations on noteworthy features of restaurant menus I've encountered. I hope it gives you a sense of menus' rhetorical wiles.

Like restaurants themselves, some succeed; others fail. But how they do either is not always "by the book." (There are countless books on restaurant menu design.) As people say, it's complicated.

Alison Pearlman

27 December 2016


I promised I would post when I finished my manuscript on restaurant menus. I am a woman of my word. It is complete, at least until an editor gets hold of it....

The book in brief: A thoroughly researched, socially observant, and entertaining firsthand account of how restaurant menus design consumer choice and the experience of a meal.

The work is based on my documentation of 77 encounters with menus at 70 restaurants throughout the greater Los Angeles area, which span all restaurant genres and menu formats. But my insights about menus are not just the product of personal experience. They are enhanced by investigations in a wide range of disciplines, from experience design to behavioral economics. Decoding menus demands a diverse set of tools! 

This book represents the next adventure in a series in which I seek understanding of the social significance and rhetorical wiles of restaurant aesthetics. It started with Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America (University of Chicago, 2013). Check out the description at http://www.alisonpearlman.com

Stay tuned to this blog for updates on the menus book. Other posts about the book may be on Twitter @theeyeindining, Instagram @alisonpearlman, or Facebook under my name.

Cheers, and best wishes for 2017!
Alison Pearlman