Originally published 06/02/2016
By Bo Peabody
In the mid-90s, two restaurants—Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in Spain and Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Napa Valley—pioneered the modern tasting menu, introducing multi-hour dining experiences with upwards of forty or fifty courses. What defined these meals was not just the sheer volume of food and time, but the lack of autonomy for the diner. This was art, crafted by artists and consumed by people who wanted to partake.
Tasting menus, while not exactly de rigeur, are becoming more commonplace. Restaurants do it for a variety of reasons: to show off their ambition, to focus their output, control costs, and to create a common, market-driven experience for every guest. Dan Barber, of Blue Hill, once said of his change to a tasting menu: “our menu is dictated by what comes in from the farm in the morning. I don’t think people realize that not having a menu here isn’t a gimmick. Farmers aren’t responding to my menu requests. They’re leading the dance.”
The rise of the tasting menu has also coincided with the rise in adventurous eating. We are more and more willing to give ourselves over to the artistry of the chef, the creativity of the food, and the construct of the meal. In many ways, the tasting menu has pushed the restaurant experience forward more than any other recent trend.
It used to be unthinkable that you'd simply enter a restaurant and be fed. Having no choice was anathema to the very definition of hospitality. Guests were picky and innovation in restaurants was a fairly anodyne experience, left mainly to the Explorer’s Club. The current mass audience of Anthony Bourdain's adventure eating franchise wouldn’t have existed except as a carnival sideshow.
Things are different now and tasting menus represent a sizable portion of high-end dining, pushing the envelope on presentation and flavor. Some of the most celebrated restaurants are tasting-menu only or tasting-menu driven, and what we're seeing in the Renzell data—data that is collected across the best high-end New York City restaurants—is that these restaurants deliver a consistently better experience for their guests.
Scores are higher across the board at tasting-menu only Renzell Restaurants, in particular at restaurants such as Atera and Momofuku Ko. Even with restaurants that offer both a la carte and tasting menu options, such as Betony and Del Posto, the Renzell data shows satisfaction scores are generally 15-20% higher when guests choose tasting menus.
Tasting menus smooth out pacing challenges, enhance service style, all but erase temperature missteps, allow for more bespoke presentations, and generally create a fun vibe between fellow guests. And it very simply takes the anxiety out of determining whether you want steak or fish.
The luxury of being fed a multi-course meal does not necessarily mean paying more than is reasonable. We often conflate tasting menus as being overly precious and as being the highest priced menus in a city—and that can be true in cases like Per Se and Masa—but some of the best value can be found in the tasting menus of restaurants such as Traif and Contra.
Tasting menus are not for everyone, but the data Renzell collects every day on high-end New York City restaurants suggests that they provide the best kind of restaurant experience. The finest of fine art.