Sunday, October 18, 2009

à la carte

In my last, menu-related post, I cheated and let someone else do all the work. As my penance, I'll do the work on this menu-related one. Moe wrote (a half a year ago) to ask:
I'm from the US and my boyfriend is from Liverpool. Last night at a restaurant (US) he ordered a sandwich a la carte. I asked him if he wasn't hungry enough to get the fries\chips that came with the sandwich. This launched into the discussion of him stating, rightly so, that a la carte means "according to the menu". By his definition, this means just ordering from the menu directly instead of special ordering.

From my understanding and from what I've asked other Americans, a la carte means in resturant terms "by itself". Meaning if you order a steak a la carte, you would not be receiving mashed potatoes or other items along with it.

Is his understanding correct in Britain and if so, what would they ask for in a restaurant if they wanted an item "by itself"?
This is as much a difference in our expectations of how restaurants work as a difference in language, I'd say.

À la carte comes from French, bien sûr, and is used in opposition to table d'hôte--more commonly called (these days) prix fixe. In the prix-fixe situation, the restaurant offers a meal of several courses with few or no choices as to what you get in which course. You get what the chef has decided to put together. In the US, I think I've only ever seen this in the most expensive restaurant I've ever been to, though I suppose it's the same thing as a meal deal at a fast food restaurant. (But I've yet to come across a burger (BrE) pedlar/(AmE) peddler who asks you if you want your Big Mac à la carte. I believe the appropriate idiom is the sandwich or the meal?) In the UK, prix fixe is a more familiar concept--both because more British people will have experience of eating in France, where prix fixe menus are common, and because they're not entirely uncommon in the UK. That is to say, I've had prix fixe in the UK at restaurants where the (AmE) check/(BrE) bill was more in line with the cost of a ticket to the theat{er/re}, rather than the cost of a ticket to Hawaii.

Ordering à la carte, then, is ordering from the (individual courses) menu rather than ordering (AmE) the whole shebang/(BrE) the full monty. So, Moe's boyfriend saw himself as ordering a sandwich as it comes according to the menu (which may be with chips/fries or what have you).

But while we don't in the US think of ourselves as having prix fixe menus, it is the case that restaurants often distinguish between 'dinners' (sometimes called entrees in this case) and simpler courses. For example, a menu might be divided into 'pasta', 'sandwiches', 'pizza' and 'dinners'. Where I come from, a popular dinner is prime rib.1 If you order prime rib, they might ask you if you want the dinner or to have it à la carte. If you have the dinner, then it will come with salad (or sometimes the option of soup) and one or two side dishes. This always flummoxes Better Half when we go to a certain restaurant in my hometown. He orders his portobello mushroom thingamajig and is then somehow offended when asked what kind of dressing he wants on his salad.2 (Even worse, they expect him to eat his salad before his dinner! The injustice of it all!) My mother, on the other hand, is regularly shocked and dismayed when she orders a main course in England and gets only what it says on the menu--a piece of meat. And you should have heard her when she ordered veal parmesan in Ireland and wasn't served a side of spaghetti with it.3 If the menu says 'rib-eye steak' or 'veal parmesan', then you're probably going to have to look at the side-dishes menu if you want any vegetables. The exception to this, of course, is if it's a roast dinner at Sunday lunch. If it's Sunday lunch, you will be served so many vegetables that you could conceivably fulfil(l) your five-a-day requirements until Wednesday.

So, it looks like Americans have sort of reinvented the prix-fixe menu as 'dinner', but don't really think of it as a menu--just as the main course. When they want a simpler and less expensive meal, they order à la carte, which almost means 'off the menu' in this case. The equivalent in the UK would just be to say 'I'd like my steak without the potatoes, please', and I'd be very surprised if that made it any cheaper for you.

And just in case all this reminds you of (AmE) à la mode, let the link take you there.

1 I've never seen prime rib in the UK, though the term itself is not an Americanism. Instead of having rib roasts and prime rib, one tends to see thinner-cut rib-eye steaks on UK menus. Someday, when I have a lot of energy, I will have to do a post on different cuts of meat in the two countries. In the meantime, please consult the maps of cows on Wikipedia.

2 I've never been asked what kind of dressing I want on my salad in the UK. You get what you get, and it usually tastes of mustard. My commenting on this will probably send some people to the comments section to exclaim that American salad dressings (particularly French and Russian) have disingenuous names--since the comments section serves as a magnet for salad dressing-related complaints.

3 I've started to think of BH and my mother as two sides of a coin, which raises the question of what/whom he's the better half of. Maybe it means it's a good thing I'm turning into my mother. Now I'm just confusing myself.

44 comments:

conuly said...

You never had a prix fixe menu in the US? They're common enough in NYC, and no more expensive than any other restaurant, I'd say.

Solo said...

I was never quite sure what they meant by 'a la carte'. I kind of took it to mean the lunch menu, as opposed to the evening. Now I know.

Anonymous said...

Lots of restaurants in the SF bay area have prix fixe menus. It's reasonably familiar all over California.

Anonymous said...

The closest I can think of to a US dinner is a fish supper in Scotland, which is fish and chips from a chip shop.

I have been to US restaurants where you are given some cheap tinned soup as a starter whether you want it or not. I think one is supposed to be pleased by the good bargain of getting more than just the dish that was ordered, but my UK reaction is to think about how little the portion of soup actually cost them.

It is irritating in UK restaurants to have to remember to ask what vegetables come with the meal. Even if you do ask, you can get caught out. Sometimes there are enough veggies so that a side order is unnecessary. Sometimes, there are a few notional bits of veg but not enough for a portion or two of one's (BrE) 5 a day, so a side order is probably advisable. Sometimes, there is absolutely nothing other than the meat or fish, so side orders are essential unless one has carefully constructed a menu choice where veggies appear in the starter.

In some fancier restaurants, the chef is so keen on producing exceptional flavours that he doesn't think about balancing the richness of the dish with some plain veg.

Krista said...

The prix fixe menus in the US have probably come in with the foodie trend in the past 5-10 years. We see them here in Alaska in restaurants that are aspirational food-wise, but not necessarily elegant.

And if this is the place to talk about salad dressing, I'd like to lodge a general complaint about thousand island: eeyuck.

Harry said...

FWIW, I think what I would expect the 'prix fixe' option to be called in the UK is 'set menu' or 'lunch menu' or something like that; I'd be mildly surprised to see 'prix fixe' written on a British menu unless it was a self-consciously French restaurant.

mollymooly said...

I can't work out Moe's description. Which of the two thought the boyfriend had ordered the fries?

In Ireland, there is one or more Set Menus (lunch, early bird, dinner), and one A La Carte menu. The set menus may or may not be prix fixe (early bird menus always are). The a la carte is bigger, priced by course, and more expensive for a full meal, but not if you only want one course.

Side orders are normally included with mains in the set menu, typically limited to "potatoes or chips" and "salad or vegetables", or even "salad and chips" or "potatoes and vegetables". Side orders are extra on the a la carte. Of course, you can order a meal from the set menu plus extras from the a la carte. Or you may be able to persuade the server to unset the set menu slightly.

But I've yet to come across a burger (BrE) pedlar/(AmE) peddler who asks you if you want your Big Mac à la carte. I believe the appropriate idiom is the sandwich or the meal?

1. If one orders "a Big Mac" the stereotypical response is "would you like fries with that?" which presupposes the burger, not the meal.
2. Calling a Big Mac a "sandwich" is itself problematic, as you've noted here.

And you should have heard her when she ordered veal parmesan in Ireland and wasn't served a side of spaghetti with it.
I won't defend the quality of Italianoid restaurants in Ireland, but surely in Italy the spaghetti would be a primo and the veal a secondo?

lynneguist said...

@conuly, krista: Hailing as I do from a small town, far from big cities, I'm not surprised that things are different in the big cities, which do tend (especially SF and NYC) to have more in common with Europe than my part of the country. I'd still associate it with being a 'fancy restaurant thing', and from a small-town point of view 'normal big city things' can be seen as 'fancy'.

@Harry et al.: yes, 'set menu' would be the English term--thanks.

@mollymooly: Yes, I don't suppose they'd say 'sandwich or meal' in the UK, but I so rarely eat in such establishments over here that I don't know what they say. Maybe 'the meal or just the burger'?

As for my mother and the Irish Italian restaurant, we constantly have to tell my mother that the Italian restaurants she's used to are not Italian restaurants (even if there might be an Italian granny in the back making the sauce). They're Italian American restaurants (or American Italian restaurants, perhaps). We went to Italy with my parents this Easter, and my mother had so been looking forward to the food, only to be disappointed at every turn that every dish wasn't covered in tomato sauce--or, in her dialect, red sauce. (A phrase that confused waiters in three cities and that has now entered the 'Mom Bingo' lexicon.)

Sandra said...

"À la carte comes from French, bien sûr, and is used in opposition to table d'hôte--more commonly called (these days) prix fixe."
I am a 31 year old French woman, I have had my share of fancy restaurants and simple diners in France, and I have never, and I mean never, even in Edith Piaf songs or Jean Gabin movies, heard a menu called "table d'hôte", "Prix fixe" or "menu prix fixe". It is called a "menu". And what in English (from both sides of the Atlantic, I believe) is called a "menu", i.e. the document informing you about what can be eaten and at what price, is called "la carte".
If you Anglo-Saxons could stop borrowing French food-related terms and then messing them up, it would be a great help ;-).

Shaun Clarkson said...

Maybe it's because I'm a small town (UK) northerner that doesn't eat out much, but it does seem strange to me to have to order veg as an extra to the main course rather than part of it. So I would (rightly or not) just think of a la carte as a more extensive and expensive menu than a set menu.

Then again I honestly can't remember the last time I ate out somewhere that wasn't one of

a) A pub
b) Indian / Chinese / Thai etc with a different meal 'construction' to English / French cuisine
c) Christmas party set menu.

So I'm not necessarily a good source on this, but maybe a la carte is quite rare here.

When you referred to a difference in how restaraunts work between the two countries I wondered if you were going to discuss a point colleagues expressed to me as "In America the menu is a just start point for negotiation" as compared to a UK assumption that the menu is a take it or leave it option.

Dan said...

Yeah, prix fixe menus are somewhat common at fancy big city restaurants in the US (and "prefix menus", while fortunately quite rare, are still more common than you'd like at restaurants that think they're fancier than they are :-)

(So is "prix fixe" one of those foreign food words that British people pronounce like it's foreign or like it's English?)

My sense of (AmE) "a la carte" is that it only applies to the case where the items are explicitly listed separately, and couldn't be used to "unbundle" a menu item. (Specifically it makes me think of buffets/cafeteria lines where you pick out whatever items you want rather than ordering off a menu. Which makes no sense etymologically, yeah...)

Picky said...

As a side dish, can I say that although "the whole shebang" is originally AmE, it arrived here long ago, and is now certainly part of my BrE. Maybe in BrE it is a bit outdated, though.

And whatever a la carte may be taken to mean, to me it is much too posh an expression to couple to a sandwich.

Doug Sundseth said...

"If you Anglo-Saxons could stop borrowing French food-related terms...."

Borrow? Whatever gave you the idea that we intended to return them?

8-)

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

In France, as I think someone has already said, the "Menu" is a set menu - many restaurants offer a choice of several, at various prices, some of which are only available at lunchtime, for instance, or for children under 10. The "carte" is what we would call the menu, so if you order à la carte, you order from the menu, rather than from a set menu.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

P.S. And I find it very strange, and slightly irritating, in the USA when I order a side salad and it comes first and I am expected to eat it before, rather than with, my main meal. If I'd wanted a starter salad, I'd have ordered one - I want a side salad, to eat with whatever I've chosen!

But then once my husband ordered a chicken salad in a restaurant in the USA, which not only came piled high with fruit (which he saved, and we shared between us for pudding), but also came with a sweet muffin, which he said was very nice but he would really have preferred to have had with his coffee at the end of the meal, not with his salad!

booktrash said...

What you've referred to as 'prix fixe' would to me be a 'set menu' and would normally be found at mass-catering events like weddings and such. I'm a Brit.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, we like borrowing French food terms, you should be flattered, eg venison, beef, veal, mutton, pork, casserole, julienne of carrots, dauphinoise potatoes, sauteed potatoes, gateau, creme brulee, meringues, chocolate roulade.

Something for le weekend?

Roger Owen Green said...

In Albany, NY, during Restaurant Week (2 or 3 times a year), several restaurants downtown will have a prix fixe menu; this year, the meal costs $20.09, and includes salad, a limited number of entrees/vegetables/starch, and a couple dessert choices.

Elizabeth said...

I think I'd associate a salad as part of a main/entree order only with low to mid range chain restaurants (Not say McDonalds but more like Applebees or Olive Garden) or with really cheap chinese/thai places. So to me it seems the exception and not the rule of American restaurants. That most restaurants in my life are not chain places probably says more about me and were I live than American restaurants in general. Then again it could also be a generational thing.

In any case I'm more familiar with a la carte being used with prix fixe on a menu.

Also if anyone ever wants a salad served a meal in the US all you have to do is ask. As menu changes go it isn't one that's going to bother anyone. Though having been raised by the queen of DIY tapas with appetizers it's possible I have less shame than many about asking for food in a non menu approved order.

Solo said...

It does seem odd that you have to ask for your side salad on the side though. I'd assume it went without saying.

I always thought Americans were much pickier with their food than Brits and it was more acceptable to ask for minor variations from the advertised, but when I tried it in America it was met with a great deal of bewilderment and usually resulted in me eating something that barely resembled what I'd been aiming for. I especially found in McDonald's (I am loathe to admit now that I ever ate in such an establishment, and do so here for linguistic and cultural purposes only) that ordering a medium meal was tantamount to asking for a unicorn steak and any minor variation to the contents of a McChicken sandwich resulted in a miscellaneous bagful of obscure menu items.

And if you wanted acup of tea you had to say 'hot tea, or you got, er, cold tea. With ice in. But no sweetning or flavour as you'd expect in ice(d) tea over here.

I always had issues with 'prix fixe' (which I've only ever seen at UK-based French places) because my instinct is to pronounce it 'pree' as in 'grand prix' and then of course it doesm't rhyme.

nat said...

If you Anglo-Saxons could stop borrowing French food-related terms and then messing them up, it would be a great help ;-)

Ah, but borrowing one another's words and messing them up is Europe's second favourite sport after le foot, n'est-ce pas?

And most of the messing up in this instance (and in the case of entrée) is because of the great Atlantic divide to which this marvellous blog is dedicated. As these pages show, we mess up native English words (insofar as such a thing can be said to exist) much more often than we do those from other languages.

Elizabeth said...

@Solo

Perhaps you might want to try to request changes to the menu at a restaurant where you can't see from where you're standing that the meals are precut and cooked and waiting to be handed to you.

As for ice tea it's already been covered.

Shaun Clarkson said...

I asked my young student cousin, who's served many a Big Mac, what their standard phrasing is and he replied

'The offical upselling method does vary slightly dependant on a few factors,

It could range from...

"would you like to make that a meal?"

or...

"is that with fries and a coke?"
Alternatively it could just be...

"Is that a meal?"

A particular favourite at MCD's is when a customer orders a meal, for example "Big Mac meal please", this would simply be followed by....

"is that large?" '

So at least in the UK, no mention of burger or sandwich, and they don't just want to sell you fries if they can get you a coke too.

Casey a.k.a. Moe said...

@ Shaun Clarkson:

Moe here!

I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment about American menus just being the starting point for negotiation. Not being the best of cooks, I tend to eat out a lot, at a variety of establishments (posh and not-so-much).

From my experiences, anything on the menu can be adjusted to the diners tastes in the US - to a point.

For example, if I went to a mid-price restaurant that offered a filet mignon with a side of broccoli and mashed potatoes, I could ask that instead of broccoli I would prefer green beans and instead of mashed potatoes I would like french fries. This would be absolutely acceptable at most mid-price to low-price restaurant in the US. (More posh places would only accept a request to hold an item, such as onions on a salad).

Using the same example as above, I could feasibly ask that I have the filet mignon ala carte, which in most US restaurants would mean that I do not want the broccoli and mashed potatoes even though they are offered with the meal, and that I would most likely pay less for just the filet as I did not receive the other items.

mollymooly said...

low to mid range chain restaurants (Not say McDonalds but more like Applebees or Olive Garden)

I have the impression such chains are more widespread in the U.S. In the U.K. there are "Little Chef" and similar at motorway stops, railway stations, etc., but they've only recently made inroads into local High Streets where residents might walk in of a Thursday evening. In Ireland still less so.

This might correlate with people driving out of town rather than walking or public transport into town.

lynneguist said...

@mollymooly: I don't know about Ireland, but southern England is full of chain restaurants at the sort of price level that compares to Applebee's/Olive Garden--just thinking around central Brighton, there's Pizza Express, Café Rouge, Tootsie's, Strada, a tapas chain whose name I can't remember, Carluccio's. The main differences from the US chains are smaller menus, more European vibe and town-centre/downtown locations--in smaller US cities, these things (like most things) tend to be in the suburban sprawl rather than the middle of town.

Ginger Yellow said...

Don't forget Nando's

Robbie said...

Don't forget Garfunkel's, either.

I had a moment of hilarity in Garfunkel's once, when a rather large lady came in and ordered a Double Hot Fudge Super Banana Split and a Diet Coke.

vp said...

Please, I beg of you, don't mention Pizza Express and Olive Garden in the same sentence. The food at Pizza Express is quite decent.

lynneguist said...

I agree with the restaurant critique, vp...in fact, I prefer any of the mentioned UK chains ...except Garfunkels...to Olive Garden or Applebees.

I developed a deep love for Nando's while in South Africa, and was very happy to find them here. Also in Brighton, which I forgot about, Giraffe (two thumbs down from me), Yo! Sushi, Las Iguanas...we got a bunch with the redevelopment that went with our gorgeous new library. (not so new anymore)

Solo said...

What's wrong with Giraffe? It's probably the best chain place we've got. They've got some of the more creative vegetarian options availiable. Plus, two for one cocktails.

Doug Sundseth said...

Yeah, Olive Garden is terrible. "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Wait, I actually like Olive Garden*.

8-)

* Really.

mollymooly said...

At Nando's in Luton, I asked for tap water with my meal. The server took an empty glass into the bathroom and emerged with a full glass. Even though it probably had indeed come from a tap, I decided not to drink it.

bill said...

On the "Side Salad" issue, I think it differs between if you ASK for a side salad, or you are simply getting the salad that may come with the meal. If you are getting the salad that comes with the meal, it is generally served before the main entree (which will most likely include a vegetable or potato as well) but if you order a side salad, they would most likely bring it with the meal, as you are indicating that it should be a side dish.
And, like others have said, the waitstaff in the majority of restaurants will modify your meal to suit, within reason...and not begrudgingly either. You want your salad at the same time? Just say so. No one is going to spit in your food for something like that.
Annoyance starts when you ask for something not on the menu just becasue you know they have "the ingredients back there"

Solo said...

I think the point was, in the UK, if you ordered a side salad it would come on the side. It's not that anyone's suggesting you can't ask for alterations to the usual service, more that as a Brit I'd just assume I wouldn't need to ask in that instance.

Incidentally, if a dish comes with salad here, that means a few leaves and perhaps a couple of cucumber and tomato slices on the side of the plate with your main.

I do find that asking for something to be ommitted from the menu description of a dish will tell you a lot about a restaurants practices because in lower [but aspiring to be upmarket] echelons of chain dining (Think Cafe Uno, Ask)it's not uncommon for them to be unable to comply on account of the fact everything is premixed for the 'chef' to heat up. Fail.

lynneguist said...

@Solo: Only because you asked, the first time I went to Giraffe (South Bank) my salad was so gritty I couldn't eat it. The second time I went (Brighton) they had about half the staff they should have had, the service took forEVer (not fun when eating alone with a toddler) and I had to ask for basic things like a spoon.

But in general, I'm pretty unhappy with all that chain eateriness around my precious North Laine. Look what happens when I move out of the neighbo(u)rhood!

darcherd said...

As a Yank, I'd expect anything ordered a la carte to be just the item itself, sans the other normal accompaniments of the "dinner", i.e. starch & vegetable. In fact, I've actually seen menus listing the selections as either "a la carte" or "dinner", with a higher price and a selection of side dishes for the latter.

And while I think of it, I've noticed there are certain very expensive restaurants, even chains such as Mortons - the kind I've only ever eaten at while on the good old company expense account - which do NOT serve any side dishes automatically with the meat - those must be ordered separately (and usually for an astronomical price).

Ginger Yellow said...

I've only eaten once at Giraffe and I wasn't very impressed. It wasn't terrible, but it certainly didn't make me want to eat there again. It wasn't noticeably cheaper than places that serve much better food (and definitely more expensive than some).

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I had lunch in one with my daughter a couple of years ago (Giraffe, this is, sorry); it was okay - and our family got a new supper item as I'd ordered their huevos ranchos tostada, which was not only delicious, but easy to make at home!

Spanish Cow said...

Re "red sauce", I once worked with a Romanian girl who insisted on referring to tomato sauce (on pasta) by this name, claiming to have heard it used in this way during a six-month stay in New York. I dismissed this, assuming she was literally translating the Romanian equivalent in her head. I was clearly wrong...

Anonymous said...

In the (maybe less upscale) places I've been around the SF Bay Area, the distinction is usually between the 'lunch' version (smaller, no non-french-fry sides) and the 'dinner' version (which usually comes with soup or salad).

I've only ever heard people use à la carte at Chinese restaurants during lunchtime, when you want to order a separate, single dish from the menu instead of the lunch special (which comes with soup/wontons).

Chris Holm said...

RE: Burger Peddlers (NZE) never offering you a Big Mac a la carte.

Jakarta McDonald's Kemang branch, drive through, this morning. Dude at window: Would you like that (Sausage 'n Egg McMuffin)a la carte, sir? Me in car: Look, it's early in the morning, I'm already in a bad mood, and we're in a fricken drive through. No more with this frikken a la carte! Are you gonna give it to me on a plate or what? Because that's what I understand a la carte to mean, and if so, when are you gonna climb out your fricken window and lay a napkin on me, and light the candle on my table? I just want the sausage McMuffin thing with egg "by itself" sendiri, okay?!! (Turns out DaW was spot on with his usage and I was the misinformed one.) In my part of the world, we commonly use a la carte in opposition to buffet, set meals not being so usual. Well, I did anyway...

Chris Holm said...

RE: Burger Peddlers (NZE) never offering you a Big Mac a la carte.

Jakarta McDonald's Kemang branch, drive through, this morning. Dude at window: Would you like that (Sausage 'n Egg McMuffin)a la carte, sir? Me in car: Look, it's early in the morning, I'm already in a bad mood, and we're in a fricken drive through. No more with this frikken a la carte! Are you gonna give it to me on a plate or what? Because that's what I understand a la carte to mean, and if so, when are you gonna climb out your fricken window and lay a napkin on me, and light the candle on my table? I just want the sausage McMuffin thing with egg "by itself" sendiri, okay?!! (Turns out DaW was spot on with his usage and I was the misinformed one.) In my part of the world, we commonly use a la carte in opposition to buffet, set meals not being so usual. Well, I did anyway...

David Crosbie said...

According to the OED,table d'hoste dates at least as far back as 1606. It meant a meal at an inn or whatever where everybody sat down together at a set time, to eat whatever the host chose to put on the table.

This meaning was taken into English. But in the nineteenth century the current meaning of 'set meal' took over. The OED states that this meaning was exported back to the French-speaking world in the 1930's, but caught on in Quebec rather than in France.

The difference between menu prix fixe and table d'hôte is that the latter can be the heading of a whole section with several of what the French call menus. A French carte would have separate headings for each menu.

When not referring to restaurant food, I've heard (and may have read) à la carte used to mean 'cherry picking' or 'bespoke' or 'eclectic' — i.e. just slinging together unrelated choices that appeal to you, ignoring the conventional combinations.

Probably the very first lexical information I learned when visiting Paris for the first time as an adult was that Menu on a menu is the heading for a cheaper set meal. English table d'hôte seems to deliberately obscure the fact that it's cheaper.

As for fish supper, the parallel with American dinner is even closer than Anonymous said. Any item whatsoever that is fried in a chip pie can be served as a supper — i.e. with chips. Pizza supper, fried Mars bar supper ... You name it.