Which Irritating Menu Phrases Would You Ban?

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The dining staff at the Chicago Tribune got fed up with reading cliches on menus. How many items could possibly be "grilled to perfection?" How many restaurants could have "world famous" dishes? Phil Vettel, the Tribune's dining critic, has nine phrases he'd like banned.


And now, we're about to serve up some finger-licking, mouth-watering, hand-crafted chitchat about cliches on restaurant menus. Sure, restaurants want to make their menus sound as appetizing as possible, but when it comes down to it, shouldn't the food speak for itself? That's what the restaurant critic for the Chicago Tribune thinks. Paul(ph) Vettel and a team of food writers at the paper came up with nine phrases that drive them crazy when they come across them on menus -world famous, anyone?

What about you? What restaurant lingo gets under your skin? We have an e-mail challenge going. Send your vote to talk@npr.org. You can also call us at 800-989-8255.

And Phil Vettel joins us from a studio in the Tribune Tower in Chicago. Hi, Phil.

Mr. PHIL VETTEL (Restaurant Critic, Chicago Tribune): Hi there.

NEARY: Okay. What phrase wins your own personal award for worst menu cliche?

Mr. VETTEL: I'd have to go with grilled to perfection.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VETTEL: Everybody - I think of perfection as being sort of a life goal, something you should maybe achieve once in your life, certainly nothing you can routinely produce every day on a menu. But throughout menus, we have things roasted to perfection, toasted to perfection -whatever that means - grilled to perfection. Can you - I've never seen boiled to perfection but, in theory, that could be done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VETTEL: But everything is always done to perfection.

NEARY: And I think that one of your writers said they want that cookbook for - how to cook everything to perfection.

Mr. VETTEL: Yes. If I write a book, I think I'll just do that - to perfection. That'll be all - you know, no matter what we're doing, boiling, chopping, dicing is that we'll do it always to perfection.

NEARY: And also as you wrote, just because a German tourist says that he or she likes your chicken salad, that doesn't make it world famous.

Mr. VETTEL: Right. I guess, it's sort of like airports. Once you have that one flight from Canada, you're an international airport. And just like you have one person from somewhere else like your food, you can now say you're now world famous because they've heard of you in England, or something. And, yeah, another frequently abused phrase.

NEARY: Now, you put this together with other food writers at the paper. Were you all just kind of sitting around one day, complaining about this?

Mr. VETTEL: Yeah. Pretty much. We were sitting around, channeling Andy Rooney, you know? You know what I hate? Paper tablecloths, that kind of thing. And we hit a couple of phrases and grilled to perfection, I think, is what launched it. And then we just started throwing things up on the wall and thought we had a cute little bit to throw in the paper. But, yeah, it was definitely a collaborative effort.

NEARY: What are some of the other phrases that you guys came up with?

Mr. VETTEL: Some of them are more persnickety such as Kobe burger. Kobe is a term for a Japanese-raised beef. It specifically references beef raised in the Kobe Prefecture in Japan. Anything else is not Kobe. It's Wagyu or it's - American Kobe, I'll accept. But there are all these places that are getting beef from South Dakota, and they're saying it's Kobe beef, and, of course, it isn't. So that's one thing that drives me nuts.

I actually saw on a menu an entree described - titled eggplant a la melanzane. And melanzane is the Italian word for eggplant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VETTEL: So we now have eggplant in the style of eggplant, which is certainly true with nature, but…

NEARY: I suppose that's - and that's like shrimp scampi, right? Shrimp shrimp.

Mr. VETTEL: Very much, yeah. But we have - and we just - it's tuna fish. It's the kind of repetition that drove - but, I love the idea of changing languages so people wouldn't know that you had pretty much run out of ways to describe the dish.

NEARY: And here's an e-mail from Andrew(ph) who says how about anything that is infused with anything else?

Mr. VETTEL: Ah, well, that does refer to as specific technique, but he's probably right. It gets used an awful lot. You just add a little - if you just add a little flavor, we use to season things and, now, we infuse them.

NEARY: What does that mean anyway?

Mr. VETTEL: And it's pretty much the same thing. Well, the idea of infusing is sort of, like, steeping, like a teabag, that kind of thing where you put the two ingredients together long enough that one sort of absorbs the other as opposed to, say, merely sprinkling salt on something. But it's gotten to every little bit of seasoning. You add it to a beef dish or chicken dishes. Now, an infusion instead of just seasoning.

NEARY: We're talking about menu and restaurant cliches. If you'd like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. Our guest is Phil Vettel, restaurant critic for the Chicago Tribune. And let's take a call from Joan(ph) who's calling from Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Hi, Joan.

JOAN (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

JOAN: My bone of contention in every restaurant is when the waiter says, is everything all right? And I'm always tempted to ask her, well, is it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VETTEL: That's a good one. It does imply a certain universal all's right with the world there. That's a cute one, Joan.

JOAN: Okay.

NEARY: All right, thanks for calling, Joan.

JOAN: Okay.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Jodie(ph) who's calling from Canyon City, Colorado.

Hi, Jodie.

JODIE (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: What's yours?

JODIE: When you go to a restaurant, it says, it's homemade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

You know…

Mr. VETTEL: Very good.

JODIE: …homemade pie. It's like, if I wanted to eat at home, I wouldn't be here.

Mr. VETTEL: Exactly.

JODIE: Now, whose home was it made in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VETTEL: That's very true. In a certain sense, they're throwing homemade on the menu to make you think it is fresher and more carefully prepared. But if it was truly homemade, that means they had to drive it in to the restaurant, which means it's less fresh than if they had prepared it right there under the roof.

JODIE: It was (unintelligible).

Mr. VETTEL: A good response to homemade anything is, whose home are we talking about?

JODIE: Exactly.

Mr. VETTEL: And, why didn't you make it in the restaurant?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JODIE: Exactly.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Jodie.

JODIE: Thank you.

NEARY: I think that made your list, didn't it? Homemade, wasn't that part of one of the ones on your list?

Mr. VETTEL: It did, in fact. It did make the list. Right. And we had people write in with - email in later with their suggestions, and there were a couple of cute ones involved there too. They - one of the ones they hated was hand-selected…

NEARY: All right. And here…

Mr. VETTEL: …and they want to know whose hand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Yeah, you don't want to think about that one, too horrid, I think. Here's an email…

Mr. VETTEL: Yeah.

NEARY: Here's an email from Carol(ph) who says, decadent to describe food especially chocolate desserts, crusty, especially bread. When purchasing cookbooks, I scanned for these phrases and will not buy them if I see them. If I find these phrases on a restaurant menu, my opinion of the management really suffers and so does my enjoyment of the meal.

Mr. VETTEL: Wow.

NEARY: Does - do you…

Mr. VETTEL: Well, I'm completely with her on decadent. I think it's overused and I'm probably one of the offenders, to be honest with you. Crusty, I don't know. I might take issue with that. There are soft breads. There are crusty breads. And so, it might be useful descriptor to some people.

NEARY: All right. Let's go to Jared(ph) and he's calling from Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Hi, Jared.

JARED (Caller): Good afternoon. Great (unintelligible). My addition to the topic is voted best burger in the area. I'd like to know who voted it and which area because it's a national chain that I've seen voted best burger in the area in all the areas.

NEARY: Yeah, what does that mean when they say voted the best? Is there any way of proving that?

Mr. VETTEL: Sometimes, yes. Often, no. Restaurants have a tendency to get a best designation from one critic, or one magazine, or one drunk and ride that pony forever. There are a couple of restaurants here that said, voted best burger in Chicago. And if it ever happened, it probably happened 50 years ago. It was certainly nobody who was alive working on a newspaper today. And there are all these little places that say they were. One place claimed that they were voted best lasagna by the Chicago Tribune.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And I must have missed our best lasagna contest because I have no recollection and it's not in the archives. But they may…

NEARY: Is that a pet peeve for you?

Mr. VETTEL: It's an annoyance. As long as they don't use my actual name, I don't get all messy about it. But, yeah, I hate it when they take our name and - or say, voted best in Chicago when the vote was the owner and his mom or something like that.

NEARY: All right. Let's go to Lucian(ph) calling from Ventura, California - I mean, Florida, sorry.

LUCIAN (Caller): Yeah. Hi. I'm sure you've seen menus that describe a chicken as spring chicken and I have never seen a spring chicken in my life. Have you?

Mr. VETTEL: Well, unless, they're time dated, it's really hard to say. I assume they're probably some that were born early enough that they'd be - they're spring chicken. But if the - the operative phrase is you're no spring chicken…

(Soundbite of laughter)

…and that's usually applied to whatever bird they're serving you.

NEARY: So, this way, we know that the chicken's not old. That's a good thing. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VETTEL: Yeah. Or, instead, they very much want you to believe it's not old.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much, Lucian. Let's go to Derrick(ph) and he's calling from Fresno. Oh, I'm sorry, got that wrong. Derrick - sorry about that. I'm making a miss to the buttons here. Derrick from Fresno, California.

Hi, Derrick.

DERRICK (Caller): Hi. How are you guys doing? I was wondering if you guys - whenever you're at an ocean side restaurant where the ocean is like 12 feet off of the restaurant and the waiter will go, you know, the fish - fresh, caught this morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I said, yeah, I'd hope so. You guys aren't flying it in from Michigan or anything. I mean, come on. That would seem like a tremendous waste of resources. And it always cracks me up whenever they say that fresh fish at the ocean.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Derrick.

DERRICK: All right. Bye-bye.

NEARY: Here's a good email from Emma in Boston. Death by chocolate, I will kill the next time I see that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VETTEL: Well, she'd better sharpen her knives because there are a lot of chain restaurants that love that phrase. I think it might have been Bennigan's or Houlihan's, or one of those that invented that phrase for the very first time, possibly, T.G.I. Fridays. But it has been repeated endlessly. And, you know, it's always funny how chocolate seems to be the resident ingredient. We never have death by lemon, death by orange, death by passion fruit, it's always chocolate.

NEARY: All right. And how about this from Chris. Remove the phrase natural or all natural from menus. Heck, uranium is natural but that doesn't mean I'd eat it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VETTEL: That's a good point.

NEARY: And from Marvin…

Mr. VETTEL: There are many things that are natural.

NEARY: Here's one from Marvin. The word mouthwatering has always bothered me. It makes me think of people who smack their chops while they eat. Does that one bother you?

Mr. VETTEL: Yeah. Very few things do. The one thing seated on my list was melt in your mouth. That's another thing. That's another descriptor that drives me crazy. Because, surprisingly, few things in this world actually will melt in your mouth and meat is almost never one of them. So if you're getting melt in your mouth ribs, you really should be questioning the source.

NEARY: All right. One more. Let's see if we can get it in James(ph). Oh, I'm sorry. I'm doing this wrong again. James from San Antonio, Texas.

Hi, James.

JAMES (Caller): Hey, thank you for taking my call. Heaping is the one that I don't like to see on menus that - I don't know. We see it a lot here in Texas.

Mr. VETTEL: Heaping usually modifies helping, does it not?

JAMES: Heaping like as in grande, big, lot's of…

Mr. VETTEL: Right. Well, then I'd say that it's always a two-word phrase, heaping helping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And that's how you get it. The heaping helping of mashed potatoes, a heaping helping of ribs, that sort of thing.

NEARY: All right. Let's go to Mark(ph). Mark's calling from Woodstock.

Hi, Mark.

MARK (Caller): Hi there. Yeah. I worked in restaurant for a long time and one of the most annoying things that I've ever had to say to customers is zesty or southwestern style flavoring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It's always pretty broad term to use. And never quite pinpoint of what exactly the zest is.

NEARY: I was going to say, does anybody - I guess you are a waiter, is that right?

MARK: Yeah. Waiter.

NEARY: And do people ever ask you, say, just how zesty are we talking?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARK: Yeah. Exactly. If you want to…

Mr. VETTEL: Now, can you…

MARK: …had to go about it, I don't know what fruits were zesting in the back there. But, yeah. Never had much point in saying that. And so…

NEARY: All right.

Mr. VETTEL: And a southwestern style meant that the chef used little cayenne pepper?

MARK: Yeah. Maybe, you know? It could have been any number of things.

NEARY: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Thanks so much for your call, Mark. Here's one from Lisa(ph) who says, oven roasted drives me crazy as opposed to what, engine block roasted?

(Soundbite of laughter)

My favorite menu malapropism was from Kelly Mondelli's, a long-time Italian restaurant on Clark Street in Chicago. Veal chop, broiled to your likeness. I asked the waiter if he'd make sure the chef reproduced my good side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VETTEL: Kelly Mondelli is - was a famous place in Chicago and I'll remind that person that La Scarola has some of the old Mondelli family members running these days. So if she would like something in her likeness, that that restaurant can probably still accommodate her.

NEARY: Well, Phil Vettel, it's been fun talking to you.

Mr. VETTEL: This has been fun.

NEARY: Phil Vettel is the Chicago Tribune's restaurant critic. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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