With Menu Design, Less Can Be More

At dinner recently I was handed a sushi-style menu, with a list of items to check off by the piece. The restaurant wasn't Japanese; it had simply adapted the format for its charcuterie and cheeses. We glanced at the long list and set it aside, not in the mood for the negotiating that goes into such decisions. Since then, I've been thinking about menu design. Is more always better? What is gained and what is lost when restaurants emphasize - or downplay -- choice?

See also: Cart-Driver Now Open for Lunch

In a decidedly unscientific poll, I reached out to friends to ask their thoughts on the matter. Not surprisingly, those who were vegetarian or gluten-free were strongly pro-choice, since choice often means alternatives to meat or gluten. In general, however, the word that surfaced most was "overwhelming."

If you're one of the six million viewers who have tuned in to Barry Schwartz's TED talk on the subject, you know why. In Schwartz's talk, which is nearly a decade old but sounds like it was given yesterday, the bestselling author stresses what he discovered in researching The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. "All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people," he said. "One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all."

That explains why some fast-casuals have tweaked the "make your own" option. At Cart-Driver, the pizza place that opened this year in the Ballpark neighborhood, co-owner Kelly Whitaker has abandoned it altogether, choosing instead to build the kind of menu that the friends I consulted like the most. "If there are limited choices but they are clearly high quality and well-curated," says one friend, "then that is great to me."

Find out if Cart-Driver's set menu of Neapolitan-style pizzas will be great to you, too, when my review of the restaurant is posted here tomorrow.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz