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Menus in English - good or bad?

It has been said many times, including (especially?) in Rick Steves' books, to avoid restaurants with menus in English , as they are likely to be too touristy and less authentic. 30 Years ago, sure, no doubt. But today? Do you still believe this to be true? Or perhaps only in some parts of the world? I ask because tourism has become big business in Europe and it is harder and harder to find a place without an English menu. I don't think having an English menu should automatically be a dis-qualifier anymore, at least not in Europe. Thoughts?

Posted by
11676 posts

We do not worry about an English menus, especially in cities. Think of it as the " new normal", because English has become the universal language. It is easier for the restaurant to offer an English menu than to deal with uncertainties and try to explain menu items in multilple languages. You will have to go far off the path to find a menu that is only in one language, specifically the local one.

We were just in Spain (Catalunya) and staying in small villages. Even the smallest places tended to have the menu in three languages: Catalan, Spanish, and English. If a fourth, they would include French. And if there were only two, it would be Catalan . . . And English.

What you do want to avoid like the plague is a place that has the menu in 6 languages, with pictures.

Posted by
11152 posts

I agree with both parts of your statement. Years ago, an English menu was often a sign of trouble. These days, not so much. This is particularly true in countries where the local language is not one of the "biggies." For instance, in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, thank goodness for English menus!

Posted by
1435 posts

English seems to be a universal second language for so many countries, so I don’t think the implication is what it was 20 years ago. I think it’s probably a better indicator to eat out of the “tourist zone” and maybe do some research before you travel.

Posted by
4777 posts

I will echo the thought that if you were pick a second language to include, it would be English.

I appreciate dual language descriptions on a single menu, I dislike when the English menu is a separate menu, especially since I know most dishes by their local name, not some hacked English description.

One thing not mentioned, with the advent of easy Internet based translation and in-restaurant printers, preparing even a daily menu in a couple languages is no big feat, back a couple decades, translations were for those that could afford it or had a command of the languages, so no surprise that more English menu descriptions are seen.

Posted by
3904 posts

This is a very outdated opinion. Take a look at any of the best restaruants in any European city and look at their website, there will be very few, if any that don't have an English menu, are they considered a disqualifier because of that? Absolutely not!

I've eaten in a lot of restaurants in Mallorca where Germans are the predominant tourists, there you will often find menus in Catalan, German and finally English. I've eaten some incredible food in some of these places. The places I do avoid are those that have reams of laminated menus with faded pictures of the 'dish'.

So yes, English menus are ok and if you're considering the next question, so are wearing shorts.

Posted by
2275 posts

Menus in English are fine. I like it when there’s 1 menu with a dish listed in the local language, then under it a translation in English and any other language. Not a separate menu in English, but that’s fine too. A lot of the nicest places have menus in English, so it’s not a red flag to me.

What I avoid are places with pictures of the food and menus in 10 languages. These can be fine if I just want a quick meal but not if I want a better experience. Generally, I’m sure there are exceptions

Tiny local places with chalkboard menus are great but not the only good option!

Posted by
1451 posts

Hi tb,

My first two visits to Rome, I frequented a neighborhood restaurant. I saw many a local visitor. The menu was in Italian first. Underneath it, was a description in English.

The food was authentic with most items (the very few exceptions were noted on menu) home made and cooked to order.

Posted by
848 posts

I agree that it is not always a bad sign these days.
It's most helpful if it's a line below the native language, which helps you learn useful words.

Posted by
4855 posts

Its helpful to the restaurant staff too, since they dont have to explain what everything is.

Posted by
9388 posts

Wholeheartedly agree although I prefer to see the main menu with English translations in the same document (not a separate English menu entirely) for three reasons.

  1. If the English translation is marginal or a bit odd-sounding, one can compare it to the native language and make an interpretation.
  2. Sometimes the native language menu has items on it that are left off the English version. I have encountered this in Italy. Maybe they thought some items were unappealing to non-Italians? I don’t know.
  3. It helps me with my language skills to have both options side-by-side.

It’s still a lot of fun to try and figure out what something is when there is no English translation. (Google is quickly ruining that game.) At least I can do that in a few languages. In Paris recently we visited a Lebanese restaurant where then menu was in Arabic and French. I knew the Arabic terms better than the French as we eat Lebanese a lot.

Posted by
3114 posts

I think the warning is more geared toward a separate menu in English that may have fewer items on it than the regular menu -- and inflated prices. This was reported many times back in the day as a trap for tourists in multiple regions on the world.

I see no issue with a single menu with multiple languages. The food I have had at places with that type of menu has been fine.

Posted by
3940 posts

It depends where you are.

I am currently on holiday in France. The biggest place I have visited was Bordeaux. I haven’t seen any place that offers a menu in anything other than French.

I regularly visit the Algarve in Portugal, which has many British, German and Scandinavian visitors. Many places, even the top end restaurants, have menus printed in different languages to make life easier for all.

As others have suggested, avoid those places with pictures rather than text.

Posted by
9388 posts

Mark, We ran into this in a neighborhood place in Rome. We were given English menus but I asked for one in Italian. It soon became apparent that there were differences in menu items and also higher prices on the English menu. I had quite a discussion with the waiter...

Posted by
5448 posts

Our group got back to Helsinki on Easter Sunday. The only restaurant that could take 10 of us was a Chinese restaurant. Menu was in Finnish of course, Chinese and "English". The English descriptions were basically Finnish to English dictionary translations. Wait staff spoke Chinese and Finnish with only rudimentary English.

One of our group was a sort of vegetarian and did not want to share dishes with our group's order. His dish of "legumes" turned out to be fresh snow peas, not peas and he got into an argument with our wait person. We traded one of our vegetable dishes for his snow peas. Lesson learned is dictionary translated menus are only a guess as to what you will be served. Pictures would be better.

Posted by
2275 posts

Recently in Rome and Sicily. We avoided places with the guy out front enticing us to come in (in English) but found most, but not all restaurants, even off the beaten track had English translations. What was new to us were all the annotations: every possible ingredient that could be associated with an allergy or intolerance was footnoted (even celery which was a new one for me) and any dish that contained frozen ingredients was noted. The later was helpful as I really like fish and many places had one or two fresh fish dishes (usually sold out early) many frozen. This was not universal but more common than not.

Posted by
12084 posts

I don't use a menu in English on the continent. If given one, then I ask for the local language menu in French or German.

Usually the menus I 've seen include English, along with the local language. If you go to a Chinese restaurant in France, you'll see the menu in French and Chinese, obviously, and English, either in separate pages or written next to each.

Definitely, menus exist only in the local language. I've been to a number of places within the last 5-7 years in eastern Germany where the menu in a small restaurant, tavern, etc especially in small towns exist only in German.

Likewise, go to small towns on the border between Poland and Germany, ie, the Polish side of the Oder River, say to a cafe, small restaurant and you'll see the menu is bilingual...Polish and German.

Posted by
7627 posts

If you are in a city that has lots of conventions and trade fairs, you will find that almost every restaurant will have either a translation in English on every menu or offer menus in English (as well as other languages too). This is not a bad sign or that you won't get authentic food, it is a sign that the restaurant wants to please their customers who will be there from all around the world.

Posted by
288 posts

I don't think a restaurant having an English menu is some glaring red flag or sure sign to avoid all costs.

But I would think that if a restaurant didn't have any English menus, there's a reasonably good chance it's visited mostly by locals, might offer up a more authentic experience if that's what you're after, and might even rely a bit more on turning local visitors from the surrounding area in to repeat customers and thus could be offering up food and service that's very appealing.

Restaurants often operate on some pretty tight margins, so an enterprising manager or owner isn't necessarily up to no good by offering English menus - if that initial effort in developing those menus can boost receipts even a handful of percentage points over the long run, that's very good for them. There's a difference between going out of one's way to cater exclusively to tourists, and making sure you're able to offer the most to (and earn the most off of) any tourists or English speakers who happen to wander by or in. In a way, if an English-only speaker comes along and skips your establishment because you don't have a menu they can read, you might reasonably consider that a lost sale. Further, you might find people who can read the menu order more off it, take up less of your staff's time, and help with ticket amounts and efficiency. English is not only the main language in lot of countries, but frequently spoken as a second language as well. A menu all these existing and potential customers can read could be a very sound and solid investment.

So, would I certainly feel like I was having a more authentic experience and feel I was dining like a local a bit more by going to a place without an English menu? Sure! I'd feel a bit more reassured about the authenticity of the food and experience if they didn't have one. But would I go out of my way to avoid places that had English menus? I would not. There would have to be other signs along with the menu that it's a place I might want to skip (only other tourists inside and stuff like that).

Now if the prices on the English menu were higher than the local language menu? That's a whole new issue entirely ;)

Posted by
1106 posts

Lola's comment at the top and 1885's comment at the bottom are both great and if I could click a 'like' button for those I would have been happy to let this discussion stand but since we have to type in comments I can't resist adding a little snarkiness to the advice about avoiding laminated menus with lots of languages on them --

that primary distinction between a restaurant that is catering (or trying to at least) to foreign visitors and one that is not is indeed important, but not indicative of food or service quality in itself, since a locals-only spot may be a mess and a never-see-our-customers-again spot may still be top-notch. But if a restaurant's menu has plenty of languages on it then that means they are trying to cater to visitors who speak those languages, for example, German. Now as a vacationer I have to ask myself if I want to spend some of my valuable time, money, and calorie intake with a good chance of being within hearing distance of German speakers, and the answer for myself is no. Emphatically no. I learned this the hard way in Rome many years ago, and have since then actually asked to move to a different table in Provence, and wished I could have moved to a different table in Lyon, when it turns out there were Germans sitting nearby. Different strokes for different folks -- maybe it's Belgians or Vietnamese or whatever for someone else -- but if I see a German menu in a restaurant in a non-German city, I keep moving. So back to the OP -- yes, having English on a menu is not as much of a red flag as it was in years past, but that doesn't mean that I think there are no longer any red flags at all.

Posted by
2575 posts

I don't avoid a menu with English. I want local, but have no idea whether what I have is good local, or not.
I will admit that the little devil in me gets out as I tend to find the typos I the translations quite humorous. I know I shouldn't laugh at someone else's expense but sometimes they are quite entertaining.

Posted by
16743 posts

"What you do want to avoid like the plague is a place that has the menu in 6 languages, with pictures."

… and laminated in plastic.

I like to look for chalkboards and hand-written menus, but some of those can also be long-term "fakes." If the chalk board of "today's specials" lists a lot of standard items and looks like it's been then there for a while, then it probably has, especially in Venice.

Rick really doesn't warn against menus in English though he's still turned off by prominent signs saying, "we speak English!" Of course many restaurant staff speak English, especially those of a younger generation, but the sign is just trying too hard to draw the tourists in.

Posted by
12084 posts

Hi,

My favourite restaurant in Budapest is a primarily a fish place, where the menu is multi-lingual, which goes without saying. I can't remember the exact name of this place unless I check my notes. The languages listed in the menu are Hungarian, obviously, German, English, and one more, either Italian or French.

The staff speaks more than just Hungarian. I assume if German is one of the languages listed, then I can go ahead and order in that language knowing the staff will know it.

In Budapest I have seen signs written in English and German upon entering indicating those languages are spoken by the staff, saw this in at least 4 restaurants before deciding on this fish place. Telling prospective customers that English is spoken, German is spoken is painted across this restaurant's exterior. You don't need to go inside to find this out. One can read read this message from across the street.

I was there twice for lunch, Based on those two visits, I saw the guests as locals and tourists, Americans and Germans too, don't remember if a credit card is aceepted. I paid my friend in Euro (approx) and he paid the bill in florints.

Posted by
360 posts

I would also suggest that you use Trip Advisor to help "validate" any restaurant choices that you might be considering, which is pretty easy to do on your phone and when you're right in front of it (we will also sometimes take the recommendations in the RS book and then cross them with Trip Advisor reviews, as we found that relying on the book alone is hit or miss). Like the US, you can't tell if something is going to be good just based on the exterior or even what the menu looks like. However, I'll second the comments about menus in plastic and the other tactic that will make us avoid a place is if someone is outside practically begging us to come in.

Posted by
2575 posts

One challenge with TripAdvisor reviews, or even Yelp, it they are often posted by other english speaking tourists who don't know what the local food is supposed to taste like. Often a local scratches their head asking 'how did that make it to the top 20 restaurants in town?" A better way to review is to check the reviews in the local language. Sure you can read about service, cleanliness and taste, but often the top picks are located in high tourist areas catering to tourists and based on narrow exposure.

Posted by
4 posts

When we go on a trip, we always try to talk to the local people. Most of time they speak broken language (if it's another country), but there hasn't been a single case when a it was a bad cafe advised us. And, by the way, such cafes on the advice could be with duplicate positions in the menu into English and the same without it. But it was always delicious. But we knew what dish to order from the locals.

Posted by
1036 posts

I remember my first trip to Italy in the 70’s. English was not readily spoken. I remember going to restaurants that had an English menu and an Italian menu posted outside the restaurants. I would study both menus and then when approached by the waiter, I would ask for the Italian menu. The prices on the Italian menu were about twenty percent cheaper than the prices posted on the English menu. Times have changed. Now I have found that most restaurants that I visited that actually had a printed menu and not a handwritten menu, have some English words below the Italian words. Obviously, there are a lot of restaurants that don’t use printed menus and in those cases, I would consult either my phone or a small Italian dictionary to find out what was being offered for dinner.

Posted by
1378 posts

In Berlin we reached a status that we can be happy if a waiter in some restaurants speaks only a little bit German. There were several news articles about that with involvement even up to minister level (example, opens German news article).

Recently I was in a café which received a delivery of goods and I had to translate between staff and delivery guy.

For tourists it means that in these kind of restaurants (wearing English titles or clearly addressing English speakers) you will likely find no real locals and no local food / way of cooking.

Posted by
12084 posts

I had heard within the last 2 years that speaking German was to be made a mandatory requirement to work in a restaurant as a waitress/waiter in Berlin and that this was discussed in the city government.

Posted by
1378 posts

@Fred: German language is only valid for education of health and nursing auxiliary as well as for school teachers. Not valid for gastronomy.

Posted by
12084 posts

@ Markk....Was it not discussed that one had to speak German in order to be hired as a waitress/waiter in Berlin?

Posted by
1378 posts

If "discussed" means that some people including Health Minister Spahn were talking about their unhappiness of that situation you can call it this way. I am not aware that there was more.

Posted by
12084 posts

Sorry, I should been more clear...By "discussed" I meant did the city authorities plan to or had in mind making it a law in Berlin that if a person wanted to apply for a job as a waitress/waiter, the applicant had to speak German in order to qualify.

A couple of years ago, 2 at the most, a German woman (mid-60s) told me she was in Prenzlauer Berg or Mitte (don't recall exactly) in a Chinese restaurant, where the waitress spoke English to her, which this woman did not understand. She replied in German., which the Chinese waitress did not understand, ie, this waitress whose English was her foreign language, was using that to communicate with the patrons. It was obvious the Chinese waitress did not know German.

Obviously too, the German woman was frustrated in not being able to communicate in her own language.

Posted by
7627 posts

Having managed 2 large restaurants in Frankfurt, I can tell you there will seldom be Germans working in them. Not front of the house and certainly not in the kitchens. Out of 65 employees in one of them, I had 2 wait staff that were German. Everyone was from everywhere. I like to look in kitchens and staff back there will usually be from Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh.

Staff needs to speak German to wait on tables, but it may very well not be their native language.

Posted by
170 posts

It’s nearly unavoidable in some places, like just about any major city. And it’s not just for tourists but for all the foreigners living and working there. English is the lingua franca of the continent.

I’ve been in places where I’m the only American in the restaurant and sometimes, so it seems, the only American in the town, and the menu still has English. I was in a fine dining place in Bolsena, there was one other table seated, they were talking in a mixture of English, French, German and Italian, and the waitress conversed with me in English. If there was a native English speaker in town that night, I didn’t know of her.

The better advice is to look for local specialties, fine dining, and places busy with locals.

Any place serving dinner too early, near an attraction, on a main tourist avenue, or serving what they think tourists like can be skipped, but depending on what you’re looking for, the food can still be good.

If all you want is pizza, and you’re somewhere in Italy, it’s probably still gonna be good even it’s across the street from the ticket line.

Posted by
1 posts

It seems to me that this is completely normal, because English is an international language, in large cities with a huge flow of tourists it is impossible to write a menu in all possible languages ​​of the people who will visit your institution

Posted by
5448 posts

Being illiterate in other than English, I'm dependent on menus in English and/or a verbal translation of non-English menus. That comes with an understanding risk and I found that I need to take translated menus with a grain of salt.

Ordering a daily special in Paris, I was assured that the "fresh fish" was fresh. It was a salted cod of sorts that was still very salty and parched my throat. The menu writter must have just picked an loose English translation that sounded good.

We made our dinner selections at our Italian hotel (half board) from the daily dinner menu available during breakfast. I ordered the "sea bass" expecting a cut of an ocean sea bass. Apparently the English "sea" translated from Italian is lake, and something more like a small fresh water lake trout is an Italian "sea bass".

Dining at a Chinese resturant in Helsinki with a group of North Americans, the menu was written in Finnish and Chinese with a loose English translation. One of our dinners (who didn't want to participate in a shared group order) ordered a plate of "lentils" expecting peas, beans or something like that. He got a plate of nicely prepared stir-fried snowpeas. Apparently the resturant relaied on a loose dictionary translation.

Posted by
486 posts

They're good if you want to know what you're eating.

Posted by
2855 posts

@Alan, re: menu annotations
I have often seen the indicator on a menu in Italy and, I think, a few other countries, that fish or seafood was frozen. I assumed it was a legal requirement, though I can’t remember if I’ve seen it recently. As for the other ingredient labels, I assume they are an EU policy directive, because we’ve now seen them in many countries of Europe. I guess it is really helpful for people who have food issues not to need to quiz waitpersons every time they order a restaurant meal.

Posted by
1038 posts

What you should beware of though is restaurants where english is more prominent than the local language on signs and menus. That is usually a pretty good sign that it is a tourist trap where no local would visit. Schoolbook example from Stockholm: https://goo.gl/maps/1YSofQJcm51X6rrz7 (For those of you who think that it looks pretty nice, look at the reviews: https://www.tripadvisor.se/Restaurant_Review-g189852-d3478084-Reviews-Cafe_Gramunken-Stockholm.html )

Posted by
1106 posts

Badger, thanks so much for that post! It's a valuable example of how it can be troublesome simply to stroll along a popular (with tourists) street and pick out a spot that looks good, rather than use a guidebook or magazine, or even a crowd-sourced website (although that would be a third option to me, not first or second). Many lanes where tourists walk are filled with choices and if someone wants to spend some energy reading menus and looking at displays I guess that is ok, but I would rather have some advice that matches my preferences and head right for that spot.

Posted by
1038 posts

Glad I could help, if you are in a touristy spot it can be useful to check independent reviews first. But english being too prominent is usually a warning sign. The exception to the rule is british/irish restaurants/pub that sometimes have most signs in english to look a bit more authentic. (A Belgian restaurant close to me however realised that they had gone a bit too far with menus only in French and Dutch…)

Posted by
64 posts

In rural and small town France away from major tourist destinations, it's rare to see menus in anything other than French. No surprise there.

I generally avoid tourist-oriented restaurants that have both French and English on their menus, and if a waiter in a larger town picks up on my accent and gives me an English language menu I usually will ask for one in French because the descriptions of the dishes are clearer and lack some of the strange "google translate" errors that range from mysterious to hilarious, but can be indecipherable in English.

Posted by
3904 posts

So Sammy, what would you do in Italy, Greece, Croatia or Sweden? Assuming you don't speak any of the language in those places do you accept the English menu (let's face it, most restaurants across the world have an English translation, even some of the most exclusive and highly regarded places) or do you stubbornly refuse and go hungry?

If you do accept the English menu then wouldn't that be hypocritical? The assumption that a restaurant having an English menu means that it's a mediocre tourist trap is decades out of date. Frankly, if you're avoiding restaurants simply because they offer a menu in English then you're missing out on some great food.

Posted by
12084 posts

"...to see menus in anything other than French." Likewise in eastern Germany, when you are in the smaller cities or small towns. You'll be addressed in German and given a German menu.

"...I usually will ask for the one in French...." Exactly, so do I, much better.

Posted by
1106 posts

Tell us, JC, does everyone in Portsmouth engage in binary all-or-nothing thinking at all times or is there occasionally room for nuance or greys between the black-and-white? [I'm kidding -- see the /s ?]

Did any of us say that
"a restaurant having an English menu means that it's a mediocre tourist trap" ?
I think what we've been saying is that if a restaurant is trying to draw customers from visitors rather than from locals it may not be what we are looking for when we ourselves are visiting a locale.

Just as the various threads about corporate/chain restaurants vs. mom-and-pop places have not been black and white about the possibility that a chain restaurant might serve a fine meal and provide some local color and a mom-and-pop spot might be awful and cookie-cutter -- it might be so, but it's likely that a chain will not offer a surprise (pleasant or un-) and a local will. I often prefer to take my chances.

In the same way, there are probably plenty of restaurants in big city X that cater to visitors over locals and have great menus and great service, but when I myself am visiting city X what I want (generally) is to eat something that caters to local palates. An English-language menu is an indicator.

Exceptions: places like Cleveland, Ohio or Crawley in Southgate - the local palate of some towns is going to be beneath me, and instead if I was going out to eat I would look for something cosmopolitan or international rather than local.

Posted by
3904 posts

Did any of us say that
"a restaurant having an English menu means that it's a mediocre tourist trap" ?

Sammy stated that s/he avoids tourist oriented restaurants with menus in French and English. Presumably because the food is not expected to be good.

S/he could have simply stated "I avoid tourist orientated restaurants", but how do you establish whether a restaurant in tourist orientated? It's certainly not simply because it has a menu in English alongside one in the native language.

I still can't fathom out why a restaurant that is geared solely to locals or natives of that country or those who speak the langauge is to be regarded as better than one that offers a menu in an additional language. I've eaten at so many excellent restaurants where there was an English menu. I certainly know that judging a restaurant on how popular it is with the locals (how you establish that they're all locals is still a mystery) is no guarantee of a good meal, often they're popular with locals because the food is cheaper than comparative restaurants nearby and if it's that cheap then there's often a reason why, poor quality food and ingredients.

My experience from running a food business is that many people value price above quality so I certainly don't follow the crowds and eat where the locals eat which has almost become a mantra on these forums. And besides, what's wrong with eating at a restaurant that wants to provide food to tourists? Many of the events I traded at were attended by tourists and I was certainly happy to feed them, why wouldn't I? Their money is just as good as anyone elses.

There's far too much misguided snobbery surrounding where to eat and it's not helpful to those seeking guidance on where to eat in a strange city. People desperately trying to fathom out whether a restaurant full of Italians in Rome is occupied by locals or whether they're all Italian tourists or recoiling in horror when they see a menu in English and hurry off to hunt down somewhere where the only menu will be in Italian. My advice is if you see somewhere that you like the look of, the menu looks appealing and a few glances of what other diners are eating appeals to you then go for it. Sometimes you might be unlucky but more often than not your gut instincts will prove correct.

Posted by
2 posts

I've certainly been in Italian restaurants full of locals where the food was mediocre at best. The axiom that you won't find bad food in Italian is an exaggeration, but I suppose that is to be expected. I've also been in restaurants with multiple language menus were it was quite obvious that the English translations were the worst. Either completely wrong, or leaving out a lot of the details. I like the fact that I can compare the translations to another language, in my case, German. While I agree that pictures are helpful on the menu, I too have found that pictures on the menu tend to correlate with lower quality.

Posted by
64 posts

JC asks what I would do in countries other than France. My answer is that I would try to use the local language menu, but if confounded and unable to decipher it I would ask if they had one in English. I don't see it as hypocritical because I was writing about France and I can read a French menu. I can read an English menu. I can read many Italian menus and Spanish menus because of the similarity of words with French and the proliferation of Italian or Spanish words and ingredients in the U.S. food scene.

You then asked why I would tend to shun restaurants that cater to tourists. My answer focuses on France and is that, in my personal experience, the food is better and more diverse in French restaurants that don't cater to tourists. There seems to be a notion among French restaurant owners who cater to tourists that they should serve more or less the same limited range of dishes. Serve what they think the customer expects. Things like salad with warm goat cheese. Boeuf bourguignon. Steak frites. Moules frites. Blanquette de veau. Steak tartar. And so on. These can be good and I may even order them on occasion. But over time they're monotonous. In my experience, one finds a more diverse menu at regular French restaurants; not those that cater to the tourist trade. I'm not thinking here about Paris. I'm thinking more restaurants in smaller towns and countryside auberges in and near places like Lyon, Dijon, Orange, Mulhouse, Montpellier, Goderville, Rennes, Brest, Quimper, and so on.

I wouldn't characterize it as snobbery. It's more an interest in trying something new and different, rather than being limited to the dishes the owner thinks tourists would like to eat.

Posted by
64 posts

JC asked what I would do in other countries. Well, I can read English and French so I think for Italy and Spain I'd probably be fine with a menu in either of those languages, as there are many similar words to French, plus -- Italian and Spanish foods and ingredients are pretty well-known and familiar. In other countries where the language is completely unfamiliar, I'd probably ask for a menu in English.

But I was speaking about France and French menus, so I don't see the hypocrisy.

Your guess about presumption is incorrect ("Presumably because the food is not expected to be good"). It's not that, though the food in some heavily touristed areas certainly can be abysmal.

It's a matter more of variety than of quality. In my experience, French restaurants that cater to tourists seem to operate under the assumption that tourists want the same general range of dishes: salad with warm goat cheese; boeuf bourgignon; blanquette de veau; escargots; tagliatelles bolognaise; and so on. One sees more or less the same fairly narrow range of choices no matter where one goes. Don't get me wrong: sometimes I go to such places and sometimes the food, while familiar, is prepared well and makes for a pleasant meal.

However, I have found that if you stray from tourist-centric restaurants, you can find a wider range of offerings many of which are better tasting, more interesting, and certainly less monotonous. Prices may be lower or higher depending on the restaurant.

Note: I'm not talking about Michelin starred places in Paris or anything like that -- just run of the mill countryside auberges and restaurants in places like Lyon, Montpellier, Quimper, Tours, Goderville, Dijon, Clermont-Ferrand, Moulins, or Mulhouse.

Posted by
6686 posts

Sammy, Having visited many of the places you mention, I can assure you that having bilingual menus in this day and age doesn’t affect quality one way or the other. It’s not on the criteria of language that I would judge a frit shop across the street from a train station.

As a bilingual, dual national, I find the food in my second country sometimes repetitive, even outside of Paris. Much more than you can imagine is made for restaurants, plated, or reheated then plated. Though I’ve been known to go to a Michelin-* restaurant now and again, I’d be a snob not to admit that to me some of this factory stuff is good. For example, most of that fish soup on the coast comes from big factories, the bigger the vat, the tastier. Just call me an open-minded barbarian. On the other hand, we’ve seen plenty of formerly good mon’n pop places become awful as they changed ownership.

Searching for mono-lingual in this day and age is a waste of time when you could be sitting at the table having an apéro. And I don’t order in Spain nor Italy based on my French reading skills. There’s too much difference and nuance. Tchin, tchin and bon appétit.

Posted by
64 posts

Thank you for your comment, but I must have been unclear. I wasn't commenting on the quality, which I noted can range from quite good to abysmal. I was commenting on the tendency to have a rather monotonous range of dishes in restaurant after restaurant, when dining in restaurants that cater to tourists.

My experience, and it may not be shared by others, is that I have observed more variety and more interesting dishes being offered in restaurants that don't focus on tourists for a major part of their revenue. I'm not referring here to non-French "ethnic" restaurants, but just to typical French restaurants in areas away from major tourist attractions.

But I've only lived in France for a little over six years thus far, so I'm sure I have much to learn.

Thanks again for your comment!

Posted by
6686 posts

I agree with that entirely on your first point, never having forgotten the post about a woman who wanted a chocolate shake with her escargot near l’Opéra in Paris. But, no you weren’t clear because you were discussing mono-lingual menus, variety, and quality.

My point is that mono-lingual is no longer a standard of quality. I haven’t noticed in which language I’m reading a menu in about forty years, unless the translation is comically unforgettable—net of lamb (filet), Digne-les-Bains (year 2000 AD).

Posted by
3904 posts

In other countries where the language is completely unfamiliar, I'd probably ask for a menu in English.
But I was speaking about France and French menus, so I don't see the hypocrisy.

But if you're so against menus in English in France because, by your own admission, it's indicative of a restaurant aimed at tourists and therefore the food is unlikely to be good why would that be any different in any other country? Surely France is not unique in that respect? You're saying that you won't eat at a restaurant in France if it displays an English menu because the food is unlikely to be good but you'd eat at a restaurant in, say Italy, if it had an English menu because you don't understand Italian. Surely the food is likely to be aimed at tourists and therefore not very good. If that's not hypocrisy then I don't know what is!

As for eating in France away from the main tourist areas I have found that there is still a tradition of serving the same 'classics' in the majority of restaurants in accordance with the region. Time and time again I've found restaurants in rural Provence serving the same old, same old even to the point that there's almost no variation in menus between restaurants in a small town square. Admittedly you've spent significantly longer in France than I have so my experience may not be wholly accurate but my observation is that the French are, in general, slow to adapt their cuisine. Even the Italians, staunch defenders of their cuisine are diversifying and indulging in more "fusion" cooking. The French seem to be more reticent in this regard, I find it to be susceptible to stagnation.

Posted by
6686 posts

JC, I agree with you thoroughly. I am so sick and tired of seeing warm goat cheese with lavender honey on every menu around for the last twenty years. It’s finally starting to die away. Too many places have the same old, same old, including neighborhood restaurants away from tourist-heavy areas.

It was a big deal when suddenly souris d’agneau started popping up everywhere ten years ago; undoubtedly some wholesaler was putting it frozen on the market. Same for joue de porc; they come frozen in 2-4 kilo bags. Just add veggies and a sauce.

It might be nouvelle for visitors but until you get into the 50€ and above, it’s not terribly original for those of us who have been hanging around the country for decades. Every once in a blue moon we stumble on a place in a provincial capital, such as Clermont, where all the downtown employees are eating a Friday lunch. There a few plats du jour may be local and from the old repertoire. Our eyes and ears perk up and the mouth waters.

Posted by
64 posts

JC, I'm simply saying that, if I have the capability to move beyond tourist-centric restaurants in any particular area (though my original comment was focused on France), I would do so. If I lack that capability in some particular location, I won't.

If that offends you or makes me a hypocrite in your judgment, that is a burden I can assure you I am prepared to bear.

And, once again, once again, once again, I'm not necessarily saying that "the food is unlikely to be good" in a tourist-centric restaurant in France. I'm primarily referring to monotony versus variety. Why is that so difficult to be understood?

Posted by
885 posts

I'm going to point out that many Europeans may not speak the language of another country but can speak English. In Istanbul at the hotel I stayed at, I witness a Turkish front desk clerk helping a Norwegian couple. They used English to communicate.

It used to be that only bad restaurants had English menus. However, even the popular restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona among the Spanish have English menus. Times have changed.

Posted by
1106 posts

Our angelic RS staffer Laura settled this way up near the top of this thread with her comments about laminated menus in 6 languages and how Rick his Eminence himself is wary of places that are trying hard to bring in tourists --- and that's whether the tourists are internal or international. An English menu is one indicator. As I and others said in the chain-vs-local threads, it's entirely possible for exceptions: a local mom-and-pop might be bad and a slick striver chain might be great, local spots might be using an industrial supplier, so on and so forth. But making a point of saying We Speak English is an indicator that the establishment is catering to certain clientele which I may not want to think of myself as being a part of (echoes of our many traveler-vs-tourist threads). We concede that there are many buts and what-ifs. I still use English as an indicator, just as I do permanent blackboards or touts on the sidewalk.

Have you noticed that certain squares in the big cities like Rome and Paris tend to draw in visitors from some countries more than others? For instance, Brits hang out near the Spanish Steps and 'Mericans like the Champs Elysee.
Noticing this and related items, like who goes to which clubs on which nights, is part of enjoying travel. Likewise picking a restaurant. Personally, I steer clear of the cafes and bistros on the Bou Mich anywhere near the river / Shakespeares' Books because they are catering to types I could do without rubbing shoulders with.

Posted by
107 posts

I think it's kind of funny to see the horror over the laminated menus with the pictures. I traveled to Japan in my youth and found the below still quite common. Don't know about today.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_model

Food models, also known as fake foods or food samples are a model or replica of a food item made from plastic, wax, resin or similar material. These models are commonly used in restaurant street displays in Japan and Korea to represent the dishes available inside...

Use by Japanese restaurants
In Japan, (shokuhin sampuru (食品サンプル), taken from the English "sample") are widespread. During the early Shōwa period, in the late 1920s, Japanese artisans and candle makers developed food models that made it easy for patrons to order without the use of menus, which were not common in Japan at that time.[1]

Posted by
3904 posts

Friends recently returned from Japan and confirmed that such models of food are still widely used.

Posted by
107 posts

Thanks. And as I understand it, they were developed for similar reasons. IIRC, that time was a time of very large changes in Japan. You have people from all over coming to different cities as part of it. Literacy was not as common and you had a similar issue of communication from people who wanted to sell to the crowds coming through. And a similar visual solution. Though when you see the artistry involved in some of these you don't think "cheap laminated...". But they've had ~ 100 years to do this. It shows. (And of course, it's Japan. [Haven't seen the Korean/other ones])

Posted by
12084 posts

I can't recall being offered an English menu in France, even in Paris in some of the tourist restaurants I've been, which are very few., and never in smaller towns , say Clermont, in Alsace-Lorraine or towns/villages in northern France or in Normandy. You learn to read a French to the point where an English menu if given to you becomes unnecessary.

The one time I was given an English language was in Vienna in 2010 at a small restaurant recommended by the hostel. The restaurant had both tourists and locals. I was given the English menu by waiter, then realised what had happened and asked for a German menu...he apologised.

Posted by
4777 posts

Oh, Sorry, that was me. Dropped my popcorn. Have a fresh batch now, please continue.

Posted by
4653 posts

Only bad experience I've ever had involving English menus was in a certain restaurant in Paris some years ago, where the maitre d' gave me an English menu without asking... and then when my waiter arrived he didn't speak any English and I had to translate the English menu into French for him to order!

Posted by
12040 posts

One downside to the English menus I've run into... if you're familiar with the names of foods in the native language, the English translation might actually be less precise or a little confusing. For example, I've seen schnitzel translated as "escalope", and spaetzle as "macaroni". The first is a less familiar term to me, and the second isn't a very accurate description.

Posted by
3904 posts

Schnitzel is technically an escalope so no real issue there but I agree with you about the Spätzle being described as macaroni. Whilst it is pasta it has a distinctly different texture and composition to macaroni. Anyway, if you did order the Spätzle thinking it would come out like a macaroni dish I think you'd end up being pleasantly surprised as it's almost always going to be better than a macaroni dish.

Posted by
12084 posts

"...the English translation might actually be less precise or a little confusing." How true. We've seen that, haven't we?

Posted by
1106 posts

It's also sometimes due to differences in British English, American English (aka normal /s), and Indian English.
Even though Brits make up a small minority of speakers of English, their peculiar usages tend to show up on menu translations.

Just the other day I was standing on the sidewalk watching a traffic jam that was caused by the Treasury Secretary's passing motorcade. Some poor fools might instead have imagined that I was on the footpath watching a tailback caused by the chancellor of the exchequer. My dog got excited and his leash got tangled with the power cord of my computer which lead to the circuit-breaker of the coffee shop tripping. Or maybe it was the lead tangled with the lead that lead to the lead shorting. (My point is that British English is frustratingly vague and non-specific.)

Returning to the menu for examples: Cuttlefish? Normal people say 'calamari'. WTF is a gooseberry? At least the English have stopped calling guacamole 'avocado salad'! Sheesh. And don't get me started on bao vs. buns.

Posted by
5817 posts

I’m not sure where you are getting cuttlefish from? We say squid OR calamari AND understand both. We’re clever like that! :-)

Also I’m not sure what the problem is with gooseberries? A traditional summer fruit, not as commonly eaten as it once was but it makes delicious summer desserts( I would say “delicious summer puddings” but that would obviously confuse the American reader)

Guacamole has always been guacamole. An avocado salad is something completely different. Where have you been eating!?

Posted by
3904 posts

Returning to the menu for examples: Cuttlefish? Normal people say 'calamari'. WTF is a gooseberry? At least the English have stopped calling guacamole 'avocado salad'! Sheesh. And don't get me started on bao vs. buns.

Have you actually been to the UK? Cuttlefish are cuttlefish, no-one confuses them with squid which is what calamari is. The confusion is all yours!

WTF is a gooseberry? Well...it's, er.....a gooseberry. There's no other word for it. An apple is an apple, a blackberry is a blackberry, a gooseberry is a gooseberry.

I've never heard guacamole referred to as "avocado salad", it's simply referrred to as guacamole.

A bao is a Chinese steamed bun....what's the issue?

Posted by
4855 posts

Yes, we have gooseberries here too. Usually in a pie or jam.

Posted by
1106 posts

I must apologise/apologize wholeheartedly and unreservedly for my poorly thought-through comment above about British English usage. I was stuck in an earlier era, when olive oil was sold through the chemist's shop and garnish meant a sprig of parsley. The UK has fast-forwarded to the front of culinary taste. (At least in some quarters.)

It's curious to me that in earlier attempts of mine to tease our neighbors to the east (whether that be old America or old Europe) folks on the forum were quicker to take the bait and throw a few barbs of their own to scratch us here on the leading edge of the west coast. I've also had worse luck getting a rise out of those half-human half-automobile cyborgs known as Southern Californians and those dour Seattle Sombrero wearers in the Great Northwest. Could it be that everyone has somehow forgotten that our planet revolves around San Francisco? /s

How about the newest versions of the translation apps on your phones? Anyone using them to good effect on European menus or chalkboards?

Posted by
6686 posts

Ah, avirosemail. When you throw down the glove, never underestimate the sparring capabilities of our dear emma and JC in the other hemisphere. They are well-equipped for touché, but certainly also recognize/recognise when an apology is graciously offered.

Posted by
3904 posts

We do indeed however sarcasm is often difficult to convey within online forums. Apology accepted and offered in return.

Posted by
1106 posts

It's been many years since I ate in a Pizza Express but I can't forget that the waitress brandished a STEN-sized pepper grinder and asked if we wanted some on our pizza. We were about to explain that black pepper doesn't go on pizzas, it's red pepper flakes, but we held our tongues.

So, Pizza Express is evidence of both progress and not-so-much-progress in British culinary sophistication...

Posted by
3904 posts

I recall a visit to a supermarket in Virginia and went to select a 'French' baguette from the bakery section. It was very soft and pallid so I asked the young lad if the loaves required baking to which he replied, "no, that's just how they are", I responded by hoping that they'd have no French customers....for the store's sake!

Posted by
1106 posts

Good one, JC -- I would mention that what counts as a bagel varies considerably across this continent, and that bread snobbery is a recognized hazard of living in the San Francisco area. Adjectives like 'California-style' or 'Philly-style' will appear on menus all over the country which would never pass muster in either (northern) California or Philadelphia. But there are more nuances: Manhattan clam chowder vs. New England clam chowder for instance. I happen to prefer the northern CA version over either of those, not just because I'm a chauvinist but because of our superior, refined tastes here in the center of the universe. What I feel is a thicker, more substantial chowder will be derided by New Englanders as too starchy.

De gustibus non disputandum est.
Unless you're from the San Francisco Bay Area, in which case the winners are clear.

Posted by
12040 posts

Anyway, if you did order the Spätzle thinking it would come out like a macaroni dish I think you'd end up being pleasantly surprised as it's almost always going to be better than a macaroni dish.

If it was listed as "macaroni" without any hint that they actually meant "Spätzle", I probably would not have ordered it in the first place.

Schnitzel vs. escalope and Spätzle vs. macaroni are just two examples I've seen. I've also seen unhelpful attempts at English translations of Schweineshaxe, Schupfnudeln, Maultaschen, Tafelspitz, Esterhazy Torte, Waterzooie, Stoofvlees and Rouladen.