I get a chuckle out of restaurants that play games with the design of their menus and wine lists. They surround certain items with frames, or print them in bigger type, the typographical equivalent to waving their arms and hollering, "Pick me!" I always wonder if they're doing it to guide us to the best stuff or the most profitable.
Now, I have nothing against creative typography, but sometimes I wonder if restaurateurs think they are fooling anyone by making their wine cards look more imposing than they are.
When I review restaurants for Wine Spectator, I make it a point to mention the number of wines on the list. It's an indication of how serious the restaurant is about its wine program. It's sort of like degree of difficulty in diving. It's a lot harder to pack enough interesting wines into on a list of 100 than into one that has 300.
I open the wine book and actually count the wines. Sommeliers don't always report the correct number when asked. (Not that they are cheating—sometimes they have more wines than they thought.)
One thing I have learned when adding up what's actually on the page: looks can deceive. I am always suspicious, for example, when I see a lot of white space around section titles. A wine list can go on for page after page and add up to 120. That's a number some restaurants fit it into one page.
I do, however, appreciate those wine lists that put an empty line every 2-6 wines to separate vintners or vintages. I can count the wines easier.
One old trick is to use a lot of labels in the wine book. Big labels. Full-size labels. One label and one wine to a page used to be commonplace in old-fashioned wine lists. This is the wine list equivalent of writing real big to make your 1-page history essay stretch to three pages. Or 20.
Another way to make the wine program look heftier is to include descriptions of the wines. A 2-line description triples the space allotted to a single wine. (I count this as a plus, by the way, because it gives us a little more information to make a good choice.)
I found the most creative approach, however, at a restaurant that opened last fall in San Francisco called Scott Howard. The menu design lists the dishes in narrow columns, four columns to a page. Each dish is a small rectangular block of type, for example:
Scallops & caviar
Tasmanian sea trout
Hama Hama oysters
The wine list follows a similar pattern Each wine is its own small rectangular block of type, arranged in four columns of three or four wines each. One example (from the by-the-glass page):
As you can see, this takes up a lot more space than one line. On our visit, the wine book ran for 12 pages but contained only 120 wines. Only the typography made it look like a dazzling array. Think of how many pages it would take in this form for a serious wine cellar of 300, 400 wines or more.
I hesitate to single out Scott Howard, because he's a serious chef, and his 10 dozen wines included a reasonable number of current-vintage options I would be happy to order in a heartbeat. But the wine list design made my ears stand up.
So I wonder. Does this sort of typographical jiu-jitsu bother you? Or do you like it? What frosts you about the look and feel of wine lists?
Brian Duffin — rocky river, ohio — April 24, 2006 3:09pm ET
Bobby Chandra — London — April 25, 2006 2:59am ET
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — April 25, 2006 1:29pm ET
Bobby Chandra — London — April 26, 2006 2:48am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 26, 2006 1:06pm ET
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — April 26, 2006 6:12pm ET
Kevin Lewis — West Palm, Florida — April 26, 2006 8:35pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 27, 2006 5:46pm ET
Apj Powers — Dallas, TX — April 28, 2006 10:28am ET
Kevin Lewis — West Palm, Florida — April 29, 2006 10:08am ET
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — April 30, 2006 3:44pm ET
Kevin Lewis — West Palm, Florida — May 1, 2006 7:58pm ET
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