How to Design Large-Format Menus to Engage Customers
Sharing a dish with the table is nothing new. In fact, it’s as old fashion as dinner at grandma’s. And it’s how people used to eat in restaurants regularly, too. “It is only in the 19th century that dining pivoted to be individually plated dishes,” says Matthew Rudofker, director of culinary operations for Momofuku restaurant group. “If you look through history, all celebratory meals or functions are about a group of people sharing.”
Over the years, some restaurants have kept that tradition of sharing alive. Think Korean barbecue and Chinese hot pot, for instance, both of which are prepared at and eaten with the table. A handful of Italian and Southern restaurants trying to evoke that sense of family—Miss Mary Bobo’s restaurant at the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, for one—continue to offer a family-style meal full of meat platters and large bowls of sides and pastas.
Even restaurants that don’t market themselves as “family-style,” like Momofuku’s Los Angeles restaurant, Majordōmo, or the 2017 Michelin-starred The Progress in San Francisco are offering four or so large-format entrees on their respective menus to pair with small plates for everyone to share.
Make them lean in
The slant seems to be experiential. In the age of social media and third-party delivery, restaurants like these are urging diners to engage, lean in, and dig in together.
“More than anything, you are going to a restaurant for an experience, for the human interaction,” Rudofker says. “Dining in a manner that brings people together through shared experiences and community has been part of modern society since long before there even were restaurants.”
Debbie Baxter, restaurant supervisor at Miss Mary Bobo’s, echoes Rudofker’s sentiment. The communal dining structure of Miss Mary’s—which is priced per person—reminds customers of going to their grandmother’s for Sunday dinner, she says. “Families are so busy that they don’t take the time to sit down and eat at the dining room table and have conversations anymore. Our dining experience brings people together.” And even though food from these restaurants can be delivered by a third party, that communal experience Rudofker and Baxter are after cannot.
Beyond happy and engaged customers, there are benefits in the back of the house, too. The Progress has found that offering large-format dishes helps limit waste in the kitchen, making the restaurant’s whole-animal program easier to achieve. Stuart Brioza, chef proprietor, buys a few lambs and pigs per week and, in the large-format dishes, works his way through the animals, changing the price of the dish to match cut and weight. “It's a great way to use up the primals of the whole animals versus piecing them out and doing like a chop or loin,” he says.
Going through six lambs at one time, Brioza will start with a platter offering of loin, tenderloin, and belly in combo. Then, he’ll move on to the rack of lamb platter and finally a braised shoulder to finish out. “The platters become our main source of roasting,” he says. “Then the rest of the menu supports those three roasts.”
The creation of these large, communal plates, however, takes some major logistics to get right.
Presentation is everything to Brioza at The Progress. On a night that the restaurant has 150 covers, he can expect to sell 50 to 60 platters, each brought out to much fanfare on giant 15-inch ceramic plates. After a few of those are served and other diners notice them, a reputation is built, he says. “It comes to the table and people start knowing that that's what you're good at,” Brioza says. “People recognize that you've got a certain game about you.”
The platters offer a certain honesty about cooking, Brioza adds. “You're getting a half rabbit. Period,” he says. But, when presenting these dishes on the large platters, Brioza makes sure to slice the meat and develop the dish as something that can be easily consumed in a group, with each bite acting as a piece of the whole. “They're landscaped beautifully on the plate,” he says. “The presentation is abundant, but it's not this massive hunk of meat. We make it easy for people to share.”
Brioza’s advice is to make these larger dishes as shareable as possible. The kitchen at The Progress goes through pains to remove things like pin bones in fish and slice meat to interact with the other elements in the dish as a kind of mosaic. “Taking one big portion or scoop and putting it on your plate should offer everything in that dish,” he says.
Meanwhile, at Cindy’s in Chicago—where dishes are served in half portions for one to two people or full portions for three to four—dishes are plated with enough ingredients for everyone to enjoy a bite, says Keith Potter, chef de cuisine. Deciding how many people can be served with one dish and making that known to the diners is imperative.
Make it pretty
Perfectly selected platters can be hard to find, and then harder to inventory, according to the team at DaDong in New York City, a Chinese restaurant offering many large specialty dishes that are typically ordered by parties of four or more.
“Carrying an inventory of large plates also requires room for them in the kitchen, and they are often much costlier than your typical china,” says Celso Moreira, director of operations. “At DaDong NY, we have very high-end specialty plates and these fall under the same category, custom-made for us in Norway,” he says.
Specialty tableware may require special service steps—ensuring there is room on the table for its arrival and providing guests with additional share components such as plates, bowls for shells, and specialty flatware. But the wow effect that these dishes create for guests is worth the trouble, Moreira says. “The dishes make a great impact when delivered to the table. They’re like a showstopper when the guests see it arriving.”
Make it delicious
Above all else, Rudofker of Momofuku says, the most important aspect to consider is the deliciousness of a dish. Guests may order the large-format option on a menu for the experience once, but, if a restaurant wants customers to return for more, the dish has to taste its best.
“If your goal is first to think about making something functional and executable, it won't have the right chance to be successful,” he says. “The No. 1 goal is how to make the most delicious product and how that is tied to overwhelming hospitality and the feeling of generosity.” The logistics should follow that, he says. “Never sacrifice quality for systems.”