Restaurant Menus Get Lean and Mean

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Just a few years ago, you'd frequently find yourself, after being seated at a restaurant, perusing a menu the length of War and Peace, its pages packed with offerings borrowing from a host of cultures and cuisines, yet customized (not to say watered down) to suit American palates.

Eateries tried give us everything. But what they really gave us, we have since collectively decided, was entirely too much. And as we Americans became more food savvy, we began to suspect that restaurants, in trying to do so many things, were likely not doing any of them particularly well.

According to The Washington Post's Wonkblog, many chain restaurants, including the International House of Pancakes, Tony Roma's, Olive Garden, McDonald's and Burger King , have noted customers' distaste for epic menus and begun to scale back their offerings .

While the average menu in 2008 included nearly 100 items, today most of them list only 93, Wonkblog's Roberto A. Ferdman notes, citing information from Datassential Menu Trends. Menu length has hit an eight-year low, and as old restaurants take to trimming, new restaurants are launching with shorter menus — nearly 40 items shorter, on average. The new trend is to do fewer things and do them better.

Cutting costs and boosting profit margins by reducing waste may be one factor driving the trend, but Ferdman suggests it may also reflect a shift in American tastes and priorities: the value placed on quality rather than quantity, broader and more sophisticated palates, and an interest in simplicity, freshness and authenticity.

"The rise of food culture, where consumers are both interested and willing to go to a restaurant that has the best banh mi sandwich, or the best burger, or the best trendy item of the moment, means that operators can now create much more focused menus," Datassential's Maeve Webster told Ferdman. "It also means that the larger the menu, the more consumers might worry all those things aren't going to be all that good."

Webster expects the shorter-menu trend to continue. So now that wordy, many-chaptered menus are a thing of the past, may I suggest menus in haiku?

Try the spaghetti
Meatballs taste delicious, they're
Like Mom used to make

I could go on all day. Want to try? Share your menu-item haikus in the comments section.

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