Are Prix-Fixe Menus Becoming the New Normal?
In 2022, diners will have to trust the chef.
It seems like Southern Belle in Atlanta tried practically everything to put the fire out in 2020. After closing the dining room, there was takeout. There was short-lived patio dining with familiar items like ribs and burgers, but comfort food for the masses wasn’t what Chef Joey Ward and his team had set out to do. So he returned to the restaurant’s refined dishes in the form of a tasting menu.
Due to staff shortages and supply chain issues as a result of the pandemic, many restaurants like Southern Belle had to get lean and mean when it came to their offerings. Some of the most renowned restaurants around the country—like Coquine in Portland, Lengua Madre in New Orleans, Oyster Oyster in DC, and Marlena in San Francisco—are forgoing a la carte items in favor of prix-fixe menus.
“Doing a pre-set chef’s tasting menu made the most sense,” Ward says. “We could control the pacing of everyone. We could do it with limited staff and we could charge a premium to help alleviate the lack of volume that we were seeing.” Southern Belle opened its doors in early 2020 and, for comparison, the restaurant tried doing brunch with 60 to 80 guests and netted the same sales as a tasting menu for 15 guests on a Thursday night. “There was a lot more effort that went into doing that fast-casual stuff and more labor and more stress in general,” says Ward.
When it comes to the revival of tasting menus, what’s old is new again, says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research and knowledge for the National Restaurant Association. As quick service dining rose in popularity and restaurants became more casual, prix fixe became less prominent, But as people begin to seek more culinary experiences coming out of the pandemic set menus are making a comeback.
“In an environment where there’s a lot of uncertainty from, obviously, the pandemic but also in terms of the supply chain and food prices, it allows the consumer in an environment where they are still quite judicious about how they spend and to know what their total spend is going to be going in,” Riehle says. “And then also, it allows the operator to design that menu.”
Though multi-course menus are typically associated with fine dining, restaurant week deals and special occasions, this model now makes sense for efficiency. Outside of San Francisco, at Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay’s restaurant Navio, executive chef Jakob Esko recently switched to a tasting menu-only setup. Before the pandemic, Navio had a tasting menu option but a large a la carte menu and had talked about streamlining.
“You’re able to improve the quality of all the dishes that you prepare, because you have less variety, and you know how many guests you’ll have and how many options there are,” Esko says. Restaurants also know the percentage of the dishes they’ll sell which, he explains, allow the kitchen to focus on the preparation and ensure an excellently prepared meal.
“We could control the pacing of everyone. We could do it with limited staff and we could charge a premium to help alleviate the lack of volume that we were seeing.”
Another benefit that Esko has found with a tasting menu is the streamlining of staff. During the pandemic, Navio lost about half of its staff and having a prix-fixe menu allows things to run more efficiently. This is especially the case at Navio’s brunch. Before the pandemic, it was a buffet with many touch stations (the usual, like meat carving and a seafood spread), and now it’s been reformatted to a set menu.
Tasting menus also offer the kitchen some stability. With a la carte menus, you might get a table that orders two of everything, which puts the kitchen in the weeds, says Ward. “Or you could have a table that comes in and just gets one thing and has a drink,” he adds. “So then you wasted that table space, from a financial standpoint.” A prix-fixe menu allows the restaurant to consistently time every table.
Just down the California coast, Daisy Ryan, co-owner and executive chef of Bell’s in Los Alamos, always wanted to offer a tasting menu at her French bistro, but featured an a la carte menu when it first opened in 2018. When Bell’s reopened after the shutdown, though, she made the decision to go tasting menu only which has been great for many reasons, she says, including the ability to pay her staff a living wage. “At the same time that we moved to the prix fixe menu, we moved to service included,” says Ryan. It was a nice time to hit the reset button by introducing the prix-fixe menu and also letting people know that service is now included in the bill which allows Bell’s to offer their entire staff healthcare.
Beyond the business aspect of tasting menus, Ryan appreciates the creative freedom that they allow. “It's very fun. And it's certainly not for everybody, but I am fortunate enough to be able to drive by the farm that we work with every single day on my way to work,” she says. “Not everything changes in its entirety all the time, and there are things on our menu that are staples. So I think it offers this mix of people go out to eat, knowing things on the menu that they know they like, but there’s always something new.”
Ward shares this sentiment. At Southern Belle and the speakeasy restaurant within it, Georgia Boy, he offers a blind tasting menu where guests don’t know what they’re getting until it’s in front of them, which he finds will push people out of their comfort zones. “I’ve had this happen several times,” Ward says. “People will say, ‘I never liked beets, but it was one of the courses. It was my favorite thing of the night. So you converted me to something.’”
One additional benefit comes down to sustainability. Esko appreciates the fact that with tasting menus comes less food waste. “Even if you have only 20 reservations or 120 reservations, you still have to prepare all the dishes,” he explains. “When you narrow down the options for the guest, it also reduces the food waste to almost a close to a zero.”
While prix-fixe menus are still not as common as a la carte options, Ryan doesn’t think that always has to be the case. “I really don’t see a prix fixe menu going hand-in-hand with something that’s more elite or fancier or any of that,” she says. “It is a really cool way to let the people who are making their food and creating this experience for you really show you what we’re good at and what we hope your experience looks like.”