Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here with a column i wrote to mark the exit of Weeklyis annual Eat + drink magazine, released today. You can find a copy, featuring stories about local bakeries, a food tour around Marina and more, in the newspaper on newsstands now.
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I were walking around Mexico City around lunchtime and stopped at a little street food stand for a bite to eat. There were two women working behind the counter – one was frying gorditas with chicharrón (we’ll have two, please!) while the other was explaining the rest of the day’s menu to us. They had simmered a pot of birria to make tacos and served with consommé, if we liked, or we could have tacos with nopales and cheese.
Compare this set of options with what we expect from a “typical” American restaurant menu, where there might be a taco section but also a burger section, salad section, appetizer section and more, all listing several options. (Current industry wisdom holds that the ideal number of options per section is seven — far more, in each category, than was available at the taco stand.)
Coast Big Sur chef Nick Balla thinks the future of restaurants looks more like this taco stand – that smaller menus and curated experiences, rather than the expectation of limitless options, are the way to create a more humane and fair industry.
“Our consumer culture has given us this notion that success is a lot of choices, and you can have what you want when you want it,” Balla said. Restaurants have easily adapted, Balla says, embracing the idea that a “the customer is always right” attitude is the pinnacle of hospitality.
But a restaurant where customers can order anything from a long list of options to be delivered to their tables for one low price has to rely on a large staff or, often, some level of operation.. “It didn’t work well for years,” Balla says, describing the practice of restaurant workers working for free for hours, regularly, before clocking in. But now a new generation of employees won’t accept working for free (or for low wages) and customers want good quality food made with increasingly expensive ingredients. Not everything can happen at the same time – and the model breaks down.
The path to followBalla argues is more restaurants with smaller menus using better ingredients, able to produce high-quality dishes with smaller, better-paid staff.
And it’s not just a futuristic vision, the move to smaller menus is already underway. At the high end, think prix fixe tasting menus and pre-purchased dinners — these allow a restaurant to cut costs by knowing exactly what they’ll be cooking and for how many people. But there are also examples on a more accessible level: the last few years have seen a marked growth in the popularity of fast food and counter service establishments. Beloved for combining the convenience of fast food with higher quality ingredients, fast casual restaurants typically feature a limited menu and eschew table service, saving money there to invest in ingredients. good quality and the wages of the workers.
This is the model at Coast, where the small, simple menu ordered at the counter (four or five main courses, plus a few snacks to take away) often changes according to the products available. The response has been good, says Balla.
Small menus can also be found in some more traditional sit-down restaurants like Monterey newcomer Cella for similar quality and quantity. “As long as the menu is constantly evolving and changing, it’s ideal to have the least amount of overhead in terms of product and labor,” says chef Ben Spungin. For Spungin, smaller menus mean a focus on what’s fresh from the farmers, “a kitchen staff who can focus on the bounty of the season, and a server who can easily understand the menu.”
And therein lies part of how Balla plans to re-educate guests.. In a hospitality-driven industry, it’s not about saying “no” to customers, it’s about shifting their expectations to something new and exciting.
“My experience has always been that the best dining experiences are when someone hosts an experience for you,” Balla said. It’s not about telling people “we don’t do that”, but about saying “let us cook for you”. And really, what could be more hospitable than that?