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The true identity of any restaurant

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

The moment you walk into any restaurant or bar, you immediately begin to formulate an opinion of your surroundings. In other words, within a few minutes, at least for me, you assess whether the establishment has the concept of a McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Buck’s, or The French Laundry.

You look around. You size up the décor, analyze the uniforms, take in the patrons around you and the overall atmosphere you feel once inside. It’s usually readily apparent, but not always.

Are the maître’ d’s in jeans or dresses and slacks? Is there a manager immediately present and are they in a suit? How many kids are in the tow of parents? Is there an overall uniform from waitstaff and bartenders, such as t-shirts or polo shirts? Or button shirts, ties and long bistro aprons?

But once you sit at that bar or table, the true identity of your new home for the next hour becomes more apparent than anything else thus far.

It’s not the staff—uniforms can be ambiguous.

It’s not management—they have a whole other pride and passion that may not always reflect the rest of the team.

It’s not ownership—because some ownership can be absent altogether.

It’s the menu.

This document is the very soul of any restaurant. And this extends to the cocktail menu of any bar as well.

My wheels started to turn. What is this document related to? On a micro scale of course, it reminded me of one of history’s greatest documents from our founding fathers.

It’s not really our Amendments, or Bill of Rights, which are the first 10 Amendments.

Then I thought maybe a menu is like the Federalist Papers. While you could make an argument that a changing menu or revised menu is a more accurate comparison to these papers, as one historian wrote, the Federalist Papers are considered one of the most important sources for interpreting and understanding the original intent of the Constitution.

So too is a menu an important source for the quest to interpret and understand a restaurant’s intent and vision.

And while this is a close one, it somehow still wasn’t quite making the complete connection in my mind. Then it occurred to me the connection was to the document of all documents.

A menu is like the Declaration of Independence.

Basically, the purpose of the Declaration of Independence is just that. It’s a statement of independence and individuality. And what other identifier in a restaurant or bar says, “this is who we are,” better than a menu?

It sets you apart. It establishes separation from the others with respect to style, quantity, price and theme.

Our founding fathers tried their best to create this piece of paper—his decree, to inform the old world that the colonies had chosen to separate themselves. That they, we, had our own individuality and that we were not beholden to the thoughts, laws and ideals of others before us. That we now had a document, in writing, that told the world who we were and what we were about.

Is that not, at the end of the day, exactly what a menu does? It is the document that defines a restaurant or bar. That tells the public who they are, what they do and how they do it.

So, the next time you patronize a bar or restaurant, wait a few minutes to pass judgement. Let the busy, scrambling staff settle in, have a seat, order a cocktail and see what’s on the menu.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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