02 April 2017


Gwen restaurant, Los Angeles. Photo by author.
Normally, when we think of a restaurant menu, we picture the list of dishes and drinks. But restaurants may be full of other kinds of menus, which may take unexpected forms. At Gwen in Los Angeles, for example, the food menu gives way, just prior to the service of the meaty main course, to a novel sub-menu: the presentation of a choice of knives. Thus, as the meal progresses, one set of choices yields another.

To be sure, the knife menu at Gwen is a novelty and therefore a conversation piece. As such, it's a neat bit of experiential marketing. Gimmicky, perhaps, but not pretentious because the choice has legitimate weight. Have you ever tried to eat a steak with a knife too light or too dull? If you do, you won't enjoy the steak anywhere near as much as if you'd equipped yourself with a sharp and solid tool. The choice of knife really does matter.

Of course, Gwen could have made this decision for you, providing you with a recommended blade. Why create an unnecessary ritual?

In its defense, I would say that the knife menu isn't just experiential marketing. It's also experiential design. It modifies our experience of the food. By making us mindful of the choice of knife, we become more attentive to the multiple dimensions of artistry behind our culinary pleasure in the restaurant. Even if we don't realize this consciously, we've gained an appreciation for the meal, and the restaurant, as a total work of art. We've picked up on the fact that our experience of the food is affected greatly by the myriad other sensory inputs in its vicinity.

(I wonder, too, whether our awareness of these dynamics makes us more or less or differently affected than we would be if left in the dark. Cognition is powerful, too.)

Those who want to study the effect of our other senses on our sense of taste will enjoy further research into a relatively new field known as gastrophysics. Look into it. Go down the rabbit hole.


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