Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
A complicated recipe: The inside dish on how Richmond restaurateurs make a menu

A complicated recipe: The inside dish on how Richmond restaurateurs make a menu

  • 0

Vegan Orgy on Texas Beach. The Swank Bank. Swashbuckling Bundt Pirate Drenched in Hot Buttered Rum.

No chef in Richmond has as much fun with his menu verbiage as L'Opossum's David Shannon. This is the same man who, when describing the look of his popular Oregon Hill restaurant, said he was going for "French restaurant at the Cleveland airport in 1977."

But there's much more to the edgy nuances of those dish names than simply entertaining himself and his diners when they dig into the menu.

Pouring over the menu's language was something that started while Shannon was working at Helen's, another beloved Richmond establishment. Having creative – even somewhat evasive –  names and descriptions for his food meant that servers had to learn the menu so they could explain dishes to patrons. That established a relationship – a conversation – between the server and the guest.

"They had to be able to interact" with patrons, Shannon said of his staff, and the colorful menu descriptions were "a really good icebreaker" to facilitate that.

Not that it always worked. But we'll get to Baby Got Coulibiac in a few moments.


Restaurant menus are complex. Owners and chefs must balance their culinary interests and aspirations with the realities of business.

Richmond's renowned food scene is a testament to those who spend countless hours agonizing over whether to add or subtract dishes from their menus, or to go with the better (read: more expensive) ingredients, or to offer seasonal truffles for an $18 upcharge – not because it'll fatten the bottom line, because it won't – but because they know that their customers will appreciate the option or novelty.

The menu's wording, the food variety, the design, the size – these are the things that owners and chefs think about, that keep them up at night ... whether they're venturing nervously into their first restaurant or, like Shannon, have experience and reputation on their side.

"There's more that goes into it than you would ever know," Michelle Williams said matter-of-factly about what it takes to create a menu.

As one of the founders of Richmond Restaurant Group, she oversees eight restaurants around town – from Hard Shell and The Daily Kitchen & Bar to East Coast Provisions, West Coast Provisions and Pearl Raw Bar.

"We see the menu as a map: You start from a concept, and then you work from that concept," she said.

The map is grounded by some necessary considerations: food costs, balancing the number of kitchen stations and dining room tables, labor costs, testing and tweaking recipes, even the psychology of menu design.

The Daily, for example, was conceived as a place that served primarily locally sourced items (or organic items when local products weren't available). With that format, "you have to think about what that means for your menu," Williams said.

Buying micro-greens from a small local farm rather than a national company? That means "we're trying to run the same menu prices [as other restaurants] on a higher-quality product," she said.

Not passing along those higher costs to customers keeps prices reasonable, and "we'll make up for that [lost revenue] in volume because [customers] will come back."

The Daily's format also influences the number of items on its menu. Unlike restaurants with pages and pages of options, "when you're making things from scratch and you're making them to order, it's not really feasible to have a menu that enormous and keep quality where it is," Williams said. "You want to make sure people feel like they're getting value for what they're being served."


Down in Shockoe Bottom, Hot Chick is the 10th concept under the umbrella of Eat Restaurant Partners, which includes Wong Gonzalez, Fat Dragon, Boulevard Burger & Brew, Osaka and Red Salt Chophouse & Sushi.

Hot Chick is a fried chicken joint that opened in January, and it was inspired by Nashville hot chicken and other regional fried chicken flavors from Texas to Virginia. While each Eat restaurant is distinct and built around a particular theme, the thread that runs throughout the group is "inclusivity."

"For Eat, it's really important that we have something for everyone – that we don't have any holes in the menu," said Chris Staples, the group's director of hospitality and marketing. "Vegetarians can come in here and have a fried chicken experience without having to eat fried chicken."

In addition to salads, cauliflower wings and a vegan patty sandwich, Hot Chick customers also can opt for gluten-free batter on their fried chicken.

While some restaurants stick narrowly within a concept, "being inclusive is who we are as a restaurant group," Staples said. And while the nonchicken items are a small part of sales, "it's more than you think – and those dollars add up.

"I'm glad to have those sales," he said. "It would be foolish to turn people away, [because] those are dollars you're leaving on the table."


Changing a menu isn't a decision that's made lightly, and nearly all restaurant owners say they never change an entire menu at once. They look at menus quarterly, or seasonally, or make changes if a particular item isn't selling – or ingredients aren't available or become too costly.

When Liz Kincaid realized she wasn't selling one whole portobello mushroom a day at Tarrant's Cafe – despite it being part of four menu items – the 'shrooms had to go.

The downtown restaurant is known for its large menu - both its physical size and the dizzying array of options listed in its vast pages. Kincaid is co-owner and chief operating officer of RVA Hospitality, which oversees Tarrant's, Tarrant's West, Max's on Broad, Little Saint and Bar Solita.

The mushrooms at Tarrant's were in wraps, sandwiches, burgers and an appetizer. And while each dish was delicious, "if I'm not selling one full mushroom per day and it's on the menu in four places, it's obviously not hitting our core demographic," Kincaid said. (The mushroom appetizer, by the way, was replaced with the much more popular Buffalo Cauliflower.)

Personal preferences, too, must be shoved aside for the sake of the business. Tarrant's pizza business has flourished, though if it were up to Kincaid, there'd be no white pizza.

"I don't like white pizza – it's just not my thing," she said. "But I'm not going to pull it off the menu, because I see people get so excited by it."

At Lehja, his Indian restaurant in Short Pump, owner Sunny Baweja said he is always wrestling with menu changes.

The sides and sauces that accompany the main vegetables and proteins often take a long time to prepare: The sauce for his popular Butter Chicken takes 10 to 12 hours, while a tamarind chutney takes a full 24 hours.

Once those are ready, Baweja tests his finishing times – cooking and garnishing the dishes before they're served to the customer – to determine if a menu item can be added or needs to be removed.

He measures everything by his busiest nights. That means even when he has a full house, appetizers should arrive within 10 minutes, and main dishes within a half-hour or a bit longer. 

"Having a good menu and having a good executed menu – that's very important," Baweja said. "We'd love to have some [different] dishes, but they have to make sense on a busy Saturday night. If it's not in the time zone, it's never part of the menu."


How a reader digests a menu – no pun intended – will influence its organization, though designs run the gamut.

The Daily's Williams said generally, customers’ eyes are drawn to the top and bottom of a menu, while the middle is absorbed last. She said some restaurants prefer to keep similar items together (such as all the chicken or seafood), while others mix everything.

At The Daily, "we think about how it reads as you [go] down" the menu, Williams said. For example, some of the popular shareable items are at the top of that menu. "We want to hit the high points."

At Eat, hospitality director Staples noted that the listings might go from lighter fare to richer fare.

He works with a graphic designer for each restaurant's menu, and while some places use lots of fonts and colors to accentuate items, only a few items are given special treatment at Hot Chick. "Bad Mutha Clucka" – a sandwich with two fried chicken breasts topped with the works – jumps out on the menu.

Will that sell more of the item? Probably not, Staples said, but it creates a talking point. In fact, the danger with doing too much on a menu is that "at some point, your menu can get way too busy, way too noisy.”

Like L’Opossum’s Shannon, Staples said knowledgeable servers are key.

"In the past five years, our menus are way more contemporary, way more concise," he said. "We rely more on the staff" to talk patrons through a menu, "and that doesn’t cost us anything."

And there’s no such thing as getting a menu right on the first try.

“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, there are typos,” Williams said, noting that a restaurant may go through 15 renditions of a menu before it’s finally right.

Then there are those intentional menu quirks, like a pasta and shrimp dish – Penne Pasta a la Vodka – that shows up twice on the menu at Tarrant's. The menus have separate sections for pasta dishes and seafood dishes.

"We list it in both, and from time to time, someone will corner me and be like, 'Liz, you made a mistake,' " Kincaid said. "Everyone thinks it's a mistake, but it's not. It was by design."

The logic is simple: Someone who wants pasta might miss it in the menu's seafood section, while someone who wants seafood might not see it in the pasta section.

"It sells twice as well as all of the other entrees because it's on the menu twice," Kincaid added.


At Lehja, Baweja dreams of having a more concise menu. If that ever materializes, he'll need to save space for the Coconut Curry Scallops appetizer.

Its seared scallops are paired with a barely-there salty, tangy and spicy coconut curry sauce, accompanied by masala-dusted leeks. But Baweja took the appetizer off the menu: He already had another scallop dish, and the coconut curry sauce requires hours of prep time.

Customers noticed.

"We always want the menu to be fresh and interesting and ... focusing on different regions of India," Baweja said. "But in this case, we [had] to bring this dish back on guest demand."

As for a more concise one-pager, he said that by Indian standards, his menu already is too small – particularly when he aims to touch on chutneys from the south, spices from the north and everything in between.

"You want a happy customer," Baweja said. "That's the only reason we go through all this."


Sometimes menu changes work – other times, they don't.

"You don't want the customer to become bored with the same selections," Williams said.

The Daily recently considered changing its veggie burger after a long run on the menu but slowing interest from patrons. The patty is made with a unique mixture of nuts, seeds, brown rice and pinto beans – something unlike traditional veggie burgers made with black beans.

"It's delicious, but it also surprises some people" because it's not a flavor profile they're used to, Williams said. "We almost changed it, but we decided not to because everything we made wasn't as good as the original."

By leaving it on the menu, "that became more of an opportunity to train our staff about that burger when people order it, if they've never been here before," Williams said. With new customers, the servers "are going to take a lot more time with them going over the menu."

The Daily did update its fish taco. 

"Those sales have dropped, [and] it's probably because people have found other favorites. But it could also be fatigue," Williams said.

"Obviously what we want is repeat business. The things that the customers love and they would boycott if you took them off – why change that?"


Novelty items aren't any restaurant's bread and butter. In fact, owners say they rarely make any real money off specialty items. What they can do, though, is distinguish restaurants.

That's one reason Hot Chick offers customers the option to "be notorious" – that is, purchase a "Winner Winner Chicken Dinner" and add a $240 bottle of Dom Perignon champagne. 

The $32 meal – eight pieces of chicken, four cheddar biscuits and two sides – can be upgraded with the likes of a $25 bottle of Cava (a sparkling wine) ... or the Dom, for those truly special occasions when the only thing more appropriate than fried chicken is fried chicken and bubbly.

"Those little kitschy things are fun," hospitality director Staples said, but "we're not trying to make any money."

In fact, he said, if Hot Chick sold a lot of them in one night, "it would raise the cost of our beverage program."


And now, back to Baby Got Coulibiac.

A few years ago, L'Opossum's Shannon created a salmon dish under that name for a special event. When it was well-received there, he decided to add it to his regular menu.

Appreciate, if you will, the riotous play on the 1990s Sir Mix-a-Lot hit song "Baby Got Back." The dish was a French approach to a Russian classic: a whole or a side of salmon, paired with tender mushrooms and other vegetables and herbs – and then all of it baked in flaky pastry dough (or sometimes phyllo dough). 

As it turns out, "coulibiac" wasn't on everyone's radar.

Shannon suspected that the name might be hampering sales, so he made a simple change on the menu. He removed "Baby Got Coulibiac" and went with a description that leaves no question about what's being served: "North Atlantic Salmon Wrapped in Buttered Leaves of Phyllo with Bone Marrow, Shiitake & Leek on a Tart and Savory Tangle of Savoy, Dill & Beets with Crème Fraîche and Trout Roe."

"That's more straightforward and descriptive," Shannon said, and the tweak "entirely changed sales overnight."

"I knew it was a really good dish, and it wasn't selling [because] it made no sense to customers ... so I changed it," he said. For restaurants – and their menus – "you get immediate feedback if something is working or not."


Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News