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When Did America's Restaurant Menus Get so Boring?

There's a big blurry line between innovation and done-to-death
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 10, 2012 11:00am ET

Oh look! Ahi tuna tartare is on the menu. And short ribs. Pizza, too! Who'd a thought?

I know my chef friends will hate me for this, but I think things are getting a little monotonous on the restaurant menus of America. Certainly, there's still innovation in the kitchens, particularly in top restaurants as well as the small bistros where young and creative chefs are keeping it real.

I'm speaking of that wide expanse between those two: the great middle area where much of America's fine dining takes place. I eat there a lot, in towns all over the country, and it's gotten sort of dull.

Must every menu include pizza these days? Seems that way. I've loved pizza since I was a kid, and it's great with a glass of California Zinfandel. Like other food lovers, I was excited a few years back when chefs who were passionate about true Italian pizza began building traditional ovens and perfecting those crusty pies. Every community should have a few specialists like that. Sonoma County has Rosso and Diavola, to name a few.

Some of the other menu fascinations lately are anything with pork belly and fried chicken like grandma used to make, that is if grandma deep-fried four chickens at once. Let's not forget house-made charcuterie, fish tacos or braised short ribs. I used to roll my eyes in joy with the rest of you as I ate them but when you see them on menu after menu the enthusiasm wanes, no matter how talented the chef. There's a big blurry line between innovation and done-to-death.

Ditto flat-iron steak and roasted salmon, which has become the boneless chicken breast of the fish world. Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I don't seem to see as many sliders on menus as I used to.

The restaurant business is tough and chefs work harder than just about anyone I know. The complexity of putting together a menu while maintaining a profit is daunting. That's why I seldom complain about restaurant wine prices.

And it's expensive to push the culinary envelope every day. If your customers hesitate to pay more than $25 for an entrée, of course, it will be flat-iron not rib-eye served by the kitchen. The reality of our current economy is that many restaurants are being forced to casual-down their menus to survive.

Certainly there's an element of "give the people what they want" going on. People like comfort, they like homemade mac'n'cheese and molten chocolate cake and pizza. Nothing wrong with that.

But am I the only one who thinks comfort is getting a little too … comfortable?

Dry Creek Vineyard
Healdsburg —  October 10, 2012 12:22pm ET
Tim - I agree with you and have noticed the same thing. The same could be said for wine lists. Things seem to be a tad one dimensional these days. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the economy. That's a key factor. Restauranteurs are doing whatever is necessary to survive. If this is the type of cusine that people want, then you have to serve it. Taking risks is well, risky.
Carissa L Herman
Morgantown, WV, US —  October 10, 2012 12:43pm ET
Could not agree more. Dining out has become a bit of a snoozefest in many cities and towns across America. I understand it is extremely difficult and expensive for chefs to constantly innovate, and perhaps if you do one thing well that should be the main focus. But, does it have to be a seared blackened ahi app? Everywhere. Seriously?
Aaron Romano
California —  October 10, 2012 1:01pm ET
I think a lot has to do with location. Here in wine country, a lot of out-of-towners are looking for great meals but they aren't as adventurous as we are because we live in a food-centric area and are exposed to more. So when we see all the "pedestrian" menus or just another brick oven pizza place, we yawn. There are only a few places in the US where you can eat rather adventurously. We live in one of them, but unfortunately a lot of restaurants are catering to the tourists. Fortunately there are the local joints (like Diavola) that can give us our offal and creative combinations.

I think more new chefs (locally) are starting to push the envelope a little bit, and experimenting more creatively. Other chefs are just trying to hop on the bandwagon and be successful (for example southern/comfort food or small plates restaurant). That being said, sometimes a restaurant can surprise you with how well they do the "simple" things.

Food trends are a funny thing - many come and go so quickly, that you didn't even realize you were late to the game in trying something. Some stick around too long and you wish they would go away. I think where chefs really strive is reinventing old/classic dishes while testing the waters and trying new and creative dishes.

Fortunately we have a plethora of options to choose from.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 10, 2012 1:05pm ET
Good points, but I wonder. Does anyone complain that every French bistro serves the same menu? That your favorite hamburger place doesn't make frisée salads? Part of the definition of "comfort food" is that it not be challenging. For me, if a "comfort food" restaurant offers some interesting daily specials, that's enough, at least in a moderately priced restaurant.
Richard Lee
Napa —  October 10, 2012 1:53pm ET
Isn't that like saying I get tired of the same WS guy reviewing my Cabernets or Zins? Or why doesn't WS get a fresh new view by getting new reviewers instead of the the same old tired ones they have now? Just sayin', better watch out, what comes around goes around.
Peter Vangsness
Springfield, MA —  October 10, 2012 2:09pm ET

"I have met the enemy, and he is US"!

The modern diner:
(1) has high expectations
(2) would prefer to pay less than it costs to be innovative (and use the freshest ingredients)
(3) likes to dine at "unique" establishments
(4) wonders why the place he or she doesn't go anymore went out of business.

I consider myself part of the problem - I do however, patronize "joints" that serve simple fare and barbecue. I get exactly what I expect for a reasonable price. Sort of like the $10 wines I find.

Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  October 10, 2012 4:10pm ET
Well said. I went to a place recently that did everything with pork belly. Really? A once eccentric and wonderful dish is now the basis for a whole restaurant? Ditto for short ribs, salmon, fried chicken, or lobster mac n' cheese. I love them all but my palate is fatigued and tired. All of a sudden, I crave vegetables? Weird.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 10, 2012 6:35pm ET

Thanks for the comments all.

Ricard, for me, it would be more like every winery producing ONLY Cabernet and Zinfandel. No matter how good the wines may be, it would get boring just drinking those two wines.

Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  October 10, 2012 11:08pm ET
I'm tired of everything being "Small Plates" or "Tapas".. it ends up you need to order 6 of them at $8 (or more) each for a normal meal.
Bring back Entrees!

Roadhouse Winery
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento , CA —  October 11, 2012 2:36am ET
I love comfort food, the pig, innovation, small plates, pizza, hamburgers, molecular gastronomy, farm to table, hole in the wall Mexican joints, my local neighborhood ethnic places and pretty much any place that demonstrates passion about what they make...bring it all on I say and in Northern Cal -- we get this and then some. And Jamie -- come over to my house for bacon seared short ribs and mushroom crusted pan mac and cheese and it will make you say "screw vegetables" (and it goes well with the 09 Grenache.... :)
Daniel Sherer
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  October 11, 2012 9:29am ET
I like fresh foods and “fresh” wines. When I go to a restaurant for the first time I take it all in as I approach our table. I quickly sum up the environment from the ambience to the wait staff to the table set. Once the menu is in my hand I can usually (not always right) determine what this restaurant can do well and that is what I order. I don’t order steak at a diner, that is reserved for my turkey club and I don’t order a cheeseburger at a seafood establishment. While they may make a great burger I am focusing on what they probably do better…fish. As for the wine, if ordering by the glass I simply ask for something not yet opened or recently opened. As the saying goes…life is too short to drink oxidized wine. It’s a challenge for the chef’s today. So much is controlled by economic factors. The best restaurants for me are those who can go to the market in the morning, procure the freshest ingredients and present them with flavor and flair.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  October 12, 2012 5:40pm ET
Ok, so I realized that I'm spoiled living in the breadbasket of fine, fresh, local food and world class wine of Northern California. And I'm whining about it! Vegetables? What am I thinking? Get the the pan hot, the bacon searing, and the Grenache corked. I coming over Andrew!
Ted Keyser
Dripping Springs, Tx —  October 14, 2012 3:12pm ET
Tim, seems you may be hanging out at the same type of restaurants ? I don't see it at all. Sure if I always head to joe's grill. When I'm at a sushi place however, there's no pizza on the menu. I don't think it's the chefs, they're simply delivering what (most) people want. You want creative, head to Ubuntu right in your backyard. There are more dining choices than ever before, it's just up to you. We're fortunate to live in Austin where thankfully the local joints still outnumber the chains.

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