Menu Matters: On Alison Pearlman’s “May We Suggest”

By India MandelkernFebruary 17, 2019

Menu Matters: On Alison Pearlman’s “May We Suggest”

May We Suggest by Alison Pearlman

WHEN I LEFT ACADEMIA for the so-called “real world,” the first job I landed was at a restaurant consulting agency. Naïvely, I thought I knew a thing or two about food. Hadn’t all those years studying orgiastic turtle feasting rituals meant anything? Working at the agency changed all of that. I learned to think of burgers in terms of “carriers” and “proteins” and fries in terms of their “craveability.” Restaurants were never mere restaurants; they were “fast casuals” or “fine casuals” or yet-to-be-named service models devoted to customizing bowls of poke. I made PowerPoint presentations exhorting clients to “leverage equity in sauces and dips” and “showcase fork and knife credibility.”

But nothing riles up a restaurant consultant quite like menus. Whether they’re printed on laminated cards, scrawled on vintage chalkboards, broadcast on LED screens, or recited by earnest waiters, menus instruct us how to use a restaurant. Little is left to chance. Stack your menu with too many options, and you’ll rattle your guests with order anxiety. Refuse to indulge their fickle appetites, and your user frequency will take a hit.

Of course, it doesn’t take an industry expert to know that menus are much more than their contents. The menu is a restaurant’s calling card: the program, the résumé, the grand marquee, the sales pitch. Menus titillate diners’ late-night cravings and social insecurities and affectations of expertise. Even more so, consultants claim, with a slick design, a well-timed promotion, and a clever bundling strategy.

People have been enchanted with menu language for a very long time (even in the 18th century, writers were hiding riddles and secret messages in them). Instructional menu writing manuals, however, date back to the 1920s. In those days, one writer lamented in The Art of Naming Dishes on Bills of Fare, menus, riddled with foreign names and obtuse stylistic references, were “neither intelligible to the servers or the served,” resulting in long waits, crabby customers, and a lot of wasted food.

Today, menu writing has spawned an expansive body of advice literature rife with pricing strategies and hospitality trends and endless statistics about consumer behavior. This hasn’t made their status aspirations any less transparent. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu (2014), Dan Jurafsky statistically analyzed the recurring linguistic patterns — pastoral imagery, lengthy names, unsolicited protestations of “freshness” — that distinguished highbrow menus from lowbrow ones, showing how alimentary descriptions, for better or worse, reflect wealth and class anxieties. Not that we couldn’t see this coming. Works by everyone from Norbert Elias to Pierre Bourdieu to William Ian Miller to Paul Fussell have suggested that there are few measures of social distinction more powerful than the ways that we talk about food.

Studies of menus, however, are a little trickier to find. Menus as scholarly artifacts have come a long way in recent years — traveling from the libraries of antiquarians and sentimental dilettantes to invocations in academic monographs about everything from environmental history to immigration patterns to changing trends in graphic design. The New York Public Library’s collection of over 45,000 menus is getting a lot more traffic than it used to, while To Live and Dine in L.A. (2015) — a collaborative project sponsored by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles that resulted in an exhibition and a book — celebrated the menu collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. We’ve also learned a great deal about the menu’s origins, which, traceable to antiquity, appeared in Song dynasty China before hitting the West in the 18th century. (The menu, replete with its individuated à la carte ordering system, helped differentiate a modern dining concept — the restaurant — from the coarser table d’hôte, where your choices depended on whether the proprietor liked you, and you shared a table with the rest of the riffraff.) Still, to date, few have really zeroed in on the cultural work that menus do.

That’s where Alison Pearlman’s May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion comes in. A professor of art history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, with a long-standing fascination with restaurants — her previous book examined shifts in restaurant design that accompanied the transformation of the midcentury white tablecloth ethos into today’s “smart casual” culinary aesthetic — Pearlman didn’t always feel so strongly about menus. For decades, she collected them “diaristically and sporadically,” relating to them “mainly on emotional and personal terms.” Graduate school changed all of that. “Art history trained me to see aesthetics as conduits of cultural values and social relations,” she writes, “so I saw restaurant style increasingly through that lens.”

In May We Suggest, Pearlman sets out to determine how menus “steer consumer satisfaction and choice,” if indeed they do so at all. After visiting over 60 restaurants in the Greater Los Angeles area — “single- and multi-unit; chains regional, national, and international, eateries of varying ethnicities and cultural fusions […] vanguard and traditional; historic and new; full service, half-service, and self-service” — Pearlman challenges the rigid, programmatic directives provided by the consultants and the industry trade rags and the hospitality marketing journals. Menus certainly influence us, she claims. But not in the ways that they say we do.

If we think of a restaurant menu as an “operating manual,” as Pearlman proposes that we do, the first half of the book, titled “Directing Events,” explains the high-level design concepts. Each chapter explores a series of different service structures that dictate how we build and sequence our meals, informing, in turn, the ways we socialize. Will we be sharing a few heaping family-style dishes, or a more “chef-driven” assortment of small plates? Will conversation be punctuated by the successive courses of a tasting menu, or will we be too focused on flagging down the last order of har gau going around on a dim sum cart? Each of these dining formats — and the choices offered therein — orchestrates our actions in order to serve the restaurant’s interests. It’s not a one-way street, of course; Pearlman argues that many of these styles are deliberate responses to changing cultural conditions: the rise of snacking at the expense of sit-down meals, for example, or the rise of celebrity chefs as tastemakers. But managing the ways we order, eat, and wait for food remains crucial to the bottom line.

This classification of restaurant categories usefully describes the sales psychologies behind each service model, even if the historical explanations behind each service model are sketched very broadly and faintly. Their connection to the menu as a type of material culture is also a little unclear. Public eating spaces were scripting our actions well before menus came about; the privilege of patronage is always contingent on the guest’s willingness to comport himself. We return to the menu as discrete design object in the second half of the book, which turns from the service models to the ways that menus attempt to influence our purchases. Valuably, her scope extends beyond the physical artifact itself — the food photography, the dish descriptors, the price notations, the materials (plastic, vinyl, clipboards, recycled paper) — to also look at the ways that they are echoed and rehashed in various ephemera (wrappers, table tents, push notifications, Reddit threads). One chapter, for example, descends into the subcultural netherworld of “menu hacking” websites and Buzzfeed listicles in order to explain the prevalence of secret menus among multi-unit chains (a phenomenon seemingly intertwined with digital marketing and the rise of the built-in phone camera). This chapter very effectively demonstrates the menu’s brokering influence on patron-restaurateur relations, showing how restaurants capitalize on the machismo of intrepid food bloggers trying to game the latter’s depersonalized and supposedly intractable ordering systems. It reminded me of the $19.99 all-you-can-eat sushi place that I’d occasionally hit up in grad school. After suffering through a succession of starchy and mayo-heavy (all complimentary) appetizers in hopes of getting a deal, you start to wonder who’s really coming out ahead.

Which brings me to Pearlman’s main point. Most of the so-called menu experts, she argues, have our selection processes all wrong. They rely on grand, universalizing studies about salience and memory retention without grasping the messy and contingent ways in which patrons make decisions. Diners aren’t faceless automatons, scanning for the visual “sweet spots” stacked with high-margin items. Instead, they come to restaurants with dozens of different agendas. At one extreme, Pearlman explains, is her frequent dining companion Jamisin, who doubles as her significant other and fellow participant-observer throughout the study. “In less than a minute,” she writes, “Jamisin figures out the optimal combination of items he likes that get him the best deal,” and “recognize[s] that the addition of one à la carte side dish to a bundle is a better deal than a running promotion” and “tells me there’s a better version of what I want in a section of the board I didn’t see.” For what it’s worth, Jamisin sounds like an unconventional person to eat with.

Pearlman is a fastidious researcher, and her work draws upon consumer psychology studies, market research reports, scholarly monographs, trend pieces, Yelp reviews, and her own conversations with restaurateurs and consultants. I wish that these conversations more frequently had included other diners, because they might have helped her avoid some of the book’s more myopic moments. Take her chapter on optimizing choice on restaurant menus. Like any business, she tells us, restaurants have a vested interest in accommodating as many needs and occasions for visiting as possible without putting too much strain on the back of house. (Fair enough; that’s restaurant consulting 101.) But to prove her point, she invokes the controversial water sommelier installed at Ray’s and Stark Bar at LACMA in 2013. Perusing the 45-page menu of bottled waters (ranging from $12–$20 a bottle) struck Pearlman as “an ingenious way to offer variety” without overburdening the guests and kitchen. That might have been the proprietor’s intent, but seemed to strike the rest of the world as a new level of tomfoolery. (“I Paid for a Water ‘Tasting Flight’ Because I am an Asshole and I Can,” read one headline). The program was dramatically downsized — and the sommelier departed — several years ago.

There’s no arguing about taste, I suppose, but perhaps our collective codes of hospitality — the kind that flare up when presented with $20 bottles of water or perceived downgrades (smaller buns, smaller burger patties) of long-beloved menu items — influence our decision-making processes more than the book lets on. Chain restaurants have PR departments for this very reason. In response, restaurateurs slavishly cater to their customers’ wants.

The example also suggests the degree to which Pearlman’s insights are colored by her own status: highly educated, culturally omnivorous, and well versed in the proper norms and etiquette of restaurant behavior. That’s understandable, and she acknowledges that what she finds persuasive or satisfactory might not matter so much to the next diner. Still, can we really understand what techniques of menu design work best without mention of status, money, Yelp, Instagram, and — perhaps most importantly — the perceived quality of the food?

In the back of her book, Pearlman includes an appendix of all the L.A. restaurants visited during her research and her methods of analyzing them. Given the city’s expansive and well-documented culinary topography, she’s right about Los Angeles being a “valid locus for studying menus of the widest variety,” even if that means that Los Angeles is hardly typical as a restaurant ecosystem. But this ultimately isn’t a book about Los Angeles or Angeleno restaurant culture, which is why I wouldn’t give her too much flack for dipping below the 10 Freeway only once (most of the restaurants she visits, incidentally, are in Hollywood). Maybe that’s a bit of a missed opportunity, as historically, L.A. menus, thanks to Hollywood, heavy tourism, and a centralized specialized printing company, had a distinctive theatrical quality that set them apart from other cities. And while Pearlman casts a wide net — visiting fine dining darlings like Maude to mid-range L.A. icons like Sugarfish to beloved neighborhood gems like Han Bat Shul Lung Tang to placeless national chains such as Applebee’s — you can’t help wondering why takeout menus or roving food trucks and stands that have influenced brick and mortars so profoundly don’t turn up in her study.

Over the past few decades, many scholars and writers have sought to explain to us what a menu is. I’ve heard it described as an “artist manifesto,” an “urban fossil,” a “gastronomic Talmud,” and an “instrumental text.” The book is certainly a needed contribution to our understanding of the menu, which has received little attention as a narrative genre in its own right. But by the last pages, we still haven’t reached any solid conclusion as to what makes them persuasive, and we don’t know what they tell us about the way we eat today. Photos, prices, and secret menus aside, menus are, at the end of the day, Pearlman tells us, aesthetically and rhetorically effective only insofar as they manage our expectations of the restaurant in question. “A clear menu is like a good soup before a good meal,” one menu manual writer declared; “a fine indicator of what is to follow.” This was written in the 1920s, but he’s still got a point.


India Mandelkern is a historian and writer. She lives in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

India Mandelkern is a historian and writer based in Los Angeles. More of her work can be found here. She is writing a book about the history of street lighting for Angel City Press.


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