Finding the Balance Between Menu Innovation and Comfort Food

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Is the role of a restaurant merely to feed hungry customers? To stimulate? To comfort? When dishes get a creative flourish, reputations can be born. At the same time, does a menu have to be an adventure at every turn? There is a reason Caesar salad is pervasive, as are Buffalo wings, hummus, and fried chicken.

Chef Keith Fuller, owner of Pittsburgh’s Root 174, says of menu norms, “Usually for me, menu items that sell really well become staples. When making a menu, I usually start with the standards: chicken, steak, fish, something vegetarian or vegan, and pork. Then I let the menu staples evolve from there, letting the guest decide.”

Is the menu exclusively the voice of the chef? Customers can dictate what hits they want to see.  

“I cannot take off pork belly carbonara with ricotta gnocchi because it has become such a popular dish that guests come in once a week for it. Even in the summer! I hate it, but people like familiar dishes,” adds Fuller.

Craigie on Main’s hamburger is a notorious draw and ranks high as a customer favorite.

“That hamburger. I hate it. But, you have a business to run,” says Tony Maws, chef/owner of the Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant. The James Beard Award winner is dead serious, too. Limiting the number of hamburgers available each night, though, is a strategic move.

“In order to stay in business, you have to sell more than burgers to maintain this business model,” he says. “If people want to come to the bar and have our hamburger after work, that’s great. But we need to sell other food to stay in business.”

So a pattern emerges. The menu is not just eclectic, and, at the same time, it is not a list of old standbys. On a visit to Taus Authentic in Wicker Park, Chicago, chef/owner Michael Taus noted that Aunt Reba’s Fried Chicken was one of the biggest sellers. That goes a long way to answer the quandary: Where do the lines get drawn between comfort and overdone, new and bizarre, fusion and confusion? As a disciple of Charlie Trotter, Taus is more than capable of offering more than fried chicken, but customers’ cravings insist on the mainstay for the menu.

Peter Sherman, chef at Bar Bacon in New York City, notes, “It really depends on the restaurant, but I can tell you the most trending and popular dishes right now are burgers, pizza, ramen, ice cream and doughnuts, bacon — obviously — and hot chicken.”

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Which begs the question: Is it the chef’s role to follow the trends or to start a trend? And if the envelope was never pushed beyond the pale, we wouldn’t have cauliflower steak, heaps of shareable plates, salted caramel everything, duck fat fries, and quinoa overload.

“I usually challenge my diners to trying something different than what is usually found as a staple item on menus at other establishments,” says Chef Chad White of Top Chef Season 13.  

Yesterday’s inventions become tomorrow’s standards. Bet you can’t hit five upscale casual spots and not stumble into at least three versions of tartare!

“It’s the catch-22 of restaurants — not changing the menu for fear of losing business. But innovation can also bring in new business [...] There’s only so much you can do to a chicken breast, but if you’re catering to the audience that knows it’s a safe bet, then you can get trapped,” says Adam Stein, chef at Red’s Table in Reston, Virginia. “Which is why you see corporate groups with trendy, small plates and menus that run the gamut from Asian to Italian to American to Indian. Because corporate [chains] are seen as a tested option. No fear from the regular customer taking chances on an unknown, which is why the most exciting food comes from chef-owned or chef-driven restaurants.”

Food, after all, should always comfort, not just because it is billed as comfort food. What does that even mean? Pot pie? Roasted chicken? Spaghetti and meatballs? Comfort food varies by culture, locale, and preference. Again, all food should be comfort food — it should make you feel good, viscerally and cerebrally. There should be some sense of gratification in partaking in a meal that satiates as well as elevates mood.

The mission of a good menu then, and the chef that orchestrates it, is to provide appealing, titillating, and fulfilling food while simultaneously keeping the doors open. Once that formula can be cracked and seamlessly replicated, keep it quiet! That is the golden egg from the goose for which we all hunt.