The Evolution of Restaurant Menus

The evolution of restaurant menus

As we shared the results of a survey around confusing menu jargon, we couldn’t help but wonder about the evolution of restaurant menus. Here, contributor Nevin Martell takes a look at how they’ve changed throughout history.

For centuries, when diners walked into an eatery, they simply ate what the chef was cooking that day. Slowly, as restaurants became more formalized, guests were given options for what they’d like to sup on. Paper menus codifying those choices first started appearing in the mid-18th century in Paris. What began as a phenomenon became an integral part of the dining experience around the world.

The evolution of restaurant menus

But don’t mistake menus as simply a list of what’s to eat. They have become barometers of the shifting tides of history. “They are a great reflection of pop culture, the eating habits of Americans, and a way to follow larger trends,” says Jim Heimann, editor of Menu Design in America, 1850-1985 and a collector with more than 6,000 menus in his archives. “For example, speakeasies in the 1920’s had coded language on their menus. It might say, ‘Ginger ale is available for your consumption.’ This meant you had a mixer for your booze. During World War II, there was an absence of a lot of items due to rationing. And in the 1960’s, you see artwork reflective of the counterculture.”

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Pim Techamuanvivit on Kin Khao, Starting with What You Don’t Know + Breaking the Mold for Thai Cuisine

Pim Techamuanvivit grew up in Bangkok and has been an internationally renowned tastemaker with stints as a food blogger, author, and jam maker. But her greatest achievement to date may be as an award-winning restaurateur in San Francisco at Kin Khao. Opening its doors in 2014, Kin Khao (which literally means “eat rice”) quickly earned a well-deserved Michelin star. Here, she speaks with contributor Amy Sherman about her journey into the hospitality industry, her much-lauded, flavorful fare, and future plans for her acclaimed eatery. 

Pim Techamuanvivit

What prepared you most for being a restaurateur?

Everything prepared me! I’m not self taught; I learned from everybody and stole from everybody. Cooking Thai food is just cooking. What gave me the confidence was jam making. I was cooking for friends and family, and they loved it. And then when I made jam, it was so well received. So I thought, “Maybe I can try this.” It gave me the confidence to go professional. I’m a much better Thai cook than I am a jam maker. Also, I have something to contribute. I really feel like I have something to contribute to the conversation. It’s not just me; I’m a link in a very long chain. I don’t want the flavors I grew up on to disappear.

When I decided to get serious about it, I sat down and started a list of things I didn’t know — that was probably the smartest thing. There were things I knew nothing about, like running a professional kitchen, then I just worked my way through it. So it became like my road map.

It’s easy to look at a restaurant and think it’s so easy. People think it’s like having a dinner party every day when really it’s about putting trash bags into cans into every day.

Was finding the food you want to eat the motivation behind the restaurant?

Yes! You know, a lot of chefs, they are motivated by wanting to feed people. I like cooking for friends, but it’s more about wanting to feed me! I want the food to be available to me and others. I’m from Bangkok so I was exposed to food from everywhere. The menu is not really all Eastern or Southern Thai. I don’t understand why people aren’t making the food I want to eat.

Are there particular things that you find to be the most frustrating about being a restaurateur?

Having people think of it as not valued. For instance, why is my rabbit curry $32? It is because it’s almost an entire rabbit in a bowl; where else can you get that? At Saison, maybe. It feeds several people. There’s a lot of work going into it. The quality compares to any of the best restaurants. So, it’s disheartening. There are 29 ingredients in the Massaman curry paste — made from scratch. That’s the part that I struggle with. At the same time, I am sticking to my guns. This is how I’m going to do it. Our average check average is $40 or so per person. That includes drinks and food! Because we’re Thai, people don’t value it. I have to make peace with that.

Pim Techamuanvivit

What dishes are you most proud of on your menu?

It changes, but right now, all of the curries, because it’s so hard to get them right. I remember before we opened, I talked to distributors for things like fish sauce with lists with curry pastes. I told them I was making my curry pastes from scratch. They were shocked because it’s difficult and hard to get consistent. Thai ingredients are not standardized, such as chiles and lemongrass. If you ask my kitchen, they will say the curry station is the beast. It’s hard to get right. Everything we do is something we want to get right.

Why do you think so many Thai restaurants follow a formula of serving the same dishes?

A lot of Thai restaurants are not opened by people with culinary training in the cuisine; they are immigrants who want to open businesses. They are constrained by what they think people want. They think the “American taste” is going to keep them in business. Another constraint is what people value in ethnic cuisine. People think ethnic food has to be cheap. So they are constrained by that. You can’t do things from scratch, you can’t buy good ingredients if you are trying to be cheap. So they buy cheap prepped food. But you see it changing with some restaurants using good ingredients and better techniques. We are breaking the mold. I wanted to see if I could make it economically viable.Continue Reading

Sightseers: The Best Bay View Restaurants in San Francisco

Traveling to San Francisco? The Bay Area features a wide range of restaurant dining options, some with spectacular bay views — all depending upon your vantage point. You can dine with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, just underneath the glittering lights of the Bay Bridge, see the famous skyline from the East Bay, or take in the nitty gritty working waterfront. You can sip on drinks from high atop Nob Hill, slurp oysters at a high-end seafood restaurant, or nibble on Chinese spareribs at a tropical getaway. Here are some top picks for the best bay view restaurants in San Francisco.

Waterbar, San Francisco
This glamorous seafood restaurant right under the Bay Bridge is an ideal place, day or night, to enjoy the vistas. Known for stunning floor-to-ceiling tropical aquariums and a firm commitment to sustainability and transparency, the restaurant offers a menu that even calls out the captains and fishing boats. It’s a prime spot for oysters with as many as 16 different types on any given day, and a daily pick is available for just $1.05 each from 11:30-5:30PM, with a nickel going to charity. It’s also a terrific place to indulge in a whole Dungeness crab or crab cocktail. Make a reservation at Waterbar.

Best Bay View Restaurants in San Francisco

La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, San Francisco
This Peruvian restaurant from acclaimed chef Gaston Acurio has a sunny deck and enticing specialties including empanadas, cebiches, and causas. It’s also a great place to try a Pisco cocktail. Or two. Arriving via the bay? La Mar is San Francisco’s only waterfront restaurant that offers complimentary boat parking for three hours. Make a reservation at La Mar Cebicheria Peruana.

Best Bay View Restaurants in San Francisco

EPIC Steak, San Francisco
With a newly added outside bar, the patio at Epic is more appealing than ever. This restaurant is as adept with steak as it is with delicate pasta and luscious fresh vegetables, such as a recent special of jumbo asparagus with a poached egg, Banyuls vinaigrette, and Cotija cheese. The best deal just might be the BBB, a bacon cheddar wagyu burger served with fries, a Budweiser, and a brownie for just $20. Add a 4th B — a shot of Michter’s bourbon — for another $5. Watch stormy days from inside or sit under the sunshine yellow umbrellas for lunch or drinks after work. Make a reservation at EPIC Steak.

Best Bay View Restaurants in San Francisco

ATwater Tavern, San Francisco
The latest addition to the San Francisco waterfront dining scene is ATwater Tavern. Located just past the baseball stadium, it’s the perfect place to celebrate a win, drown your sorrows should the Giants lose, or just wait until the traffic dies town before heading home after a game. The solid grill-focused menu offers plenty of seafood and a wide range of beer and wine on tap. Drink or dine from inside or out, upstairs or down, and see the workings of the port of San Francisco. Make a reservation at ATwater Tavern.

Best Bay View Restaurants in San Francisco

Top of the Mark, San Francisco
From Nob Hill at the top of the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, you’ll enjoy great views of the City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands, as well as Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf. During World War II, servicemen would meet and toast the Golden Gate Bridge before shipping out in hopes that this good luck ritual would bring them safely home. Their wives and sweethearts would head to the northwest corner of the lounge to watch them depart, earning this famous spot the nickname “Weepers’ Corner.” The lounge is known for a creative martini menu and offers small bites in the evenings and an extensive brunch buffet on Sundays. Make a reservation at Top of the Mark.

Best Bay View Restaurants in San Francisco

Greens, San Francisco
Originally opened as part of the San Francisco Zen Center, for 35 years this restaurant located at Fort Mason has offered stunning marina and bay spectacles all the way out to the Golden Gate Bridge. The food here is vegetarian and draws from various cuisines around the world. Much of the produce is sourced from nearby Green Gulch Farm, a residential Zen community and organic farm located just an hour away. The carefully curated wine list focuses on small producers. Make a reservation at Greens.

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12 Fresh Spring Dishes Showcasing the Best of the Season

Chefs love spring. Can you blame them? The days grow longer and warmer, and menus are finally doffing their comforting winter finery for lighter and brighter fare. Root vegetables and hearty braises are giving way to lighter offerings featuring a range of tasty, tender greens. Here are some of the best fresh spring dishes, sprouting up on menus near you.

Peas and Carrots, Finch & Fork, Santa Barbara, California
Finch & Fork typifies the casual, produce-forward cuisine of Santa Barbara and so do chef Siao’s Peas and Carrots. It’s the classic vegetable pairing like you’ve never seen it before, with burrata, golden oranges, Marcona almonds and green goddess dressing. It’s a playful dish, but also drop-dead gorgeous. Make a reservation at Finch & Fork.

Spring Dishes

Kale Caesar Salad, The Kitchen Step, Jersey City, New Jersey
Executive chef Ryan DePersio says, “With its peak season approaching, you’re probably seeing mint pop up at your local farmer’s markets or in your grocery store. Mint’s hardy, cool, and sweet flavor profile makes it one of the most versatile of herbs and one that plays perfectly in both sweet and savory dishes.” Mint is the unexpected green in the Kale Caesar Salad. The combination of the kale’s slight bitterness with the buttery nuttiness of Gouda and the bright, clean coolness of mint transforms the more traditional heavy Caesar salad into something much more refreshing. Make a reservation at The Kitchen Step.

Spring ingredients

Saffron Chitarra Pasta, Navio, Half Moon Bay, California
Dungeness crab season finally opened the end of March in Northern California, and Navio at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay offers a dish by Chef Jason Pringle, Saffron Chitarra Pasta with fresh-caught Dungeness crab, confit fennel, and lemon. According to executive chef Xavier Salomon, “We are thrilled that we are able to serve fresh, local-caught Dungeness crabs again. Our guests love and appreciate them, and they are easily our number one selling item on the menu when they are in season.” Make a reservation at Navio.

Navio

Poulpe Grille, Gaspar Brasserie, San Francisco, California
One of the best dishes on the menu right now at this intimate French spot downtown is the octopus. The Poulpe Grille features charred-yet-tender octopus, and the bright green accents to the dish add clean levity. It’s served with spring peas, fresh dill, and green garlic. Make a reservation at Gaspar Brasserie.

Spring ingredients

Tomato and Burrata, HEXX Kitchen + Bar, Las Vegas, Nevada
Executive chef Matthew Piekarski’s favorite springtime dish is Tomato and Burrata. Piekarski roasts Campari tomatoes to concentrate the flavors. The dish is served with creamy burrata, sourdough toast, olive oil, and a truffle honey reduction. “Every ingredient is light and simple,” says Piekarski. “But together, the flavors sing in perfect harmony — the perfect complement to a warm, spring day.” Make a reservation at HEXX Kitchen + Bar.

Spring dishes

Spring Citrus and Olio Nuovo Salad, Shed, Healdsburg, California
Fine dining Chef Perry Hoffman has landed at the more casual Shed in Healdsburg where he enjoys sourcing ingredients from local gardens and uses lots of fresh herbs and greens. His love for foraged ingredients is so great; he’s even teased by his staff for his propensity for adding blossoms to almost every dish. His Spring Citrus and Olio Nuovo salad features Hass avocado, and the first of spring greens. Make a reservation at Shed.

Spring Dishes

Lamb Belly with Huckleberry and Cipollini, Oriole, Chicago, Illinois
Lamb belly paired with huckleberry and cipollini is the final savory course in the 15-course tasting menu at Oriole and features an ingredient that is a true harbinger of spring — ramps. This tender green is a member of the wild onion family. The lamb is brined for 24 hours and then cooked for three days confit-style, so the result is meltingly tender. Make a reservation at Oriole.

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