How To Decode A Restaurant Menu

Did you read Kitchen Confidential? I remember when everyone I knew was all aflutter because Anthony Bourdain cautioned readers not to eat the fish special on the Sunday brunch menu as it was a technique restauranteurs employ to use up old fish. This is not to trick the customer, it’s just a simple truth that writing a menu is hard. Very hard. It has to execute the vision of the restaurant, use the product on hand, optimize the techniques and passions of the chef, utilize the space of the kitchen, make financial goals and meet each guest’s expectations and wants.



For example, you often don’t see a whole roasted chicken on a menu, even as most chefs adore them, because an entire chicken will typically take 45 minutes to one hour to cook and guests simply do not want to wait that long. Side note: I highly recommend the whole chicken at Kinship, and yes, it take 45 minutes to make it to your table.


The Psychology of a Menu

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A menu encompasses so much more than words or even dishes. There is psychology and standard behind how guests engage and think about menus and how chefs and restauranteurs design them to achieve their goals. Menu items that are at the top right corner, the first item under any column, and the very last item in the section alway sell very well. When we want to get your attention to a particular section, we put those menu items in a box or change the color. We remove dollar signs because we don’t want to remind you that those numbers are all about money. When an item has a .95 or .88 past the decimal, this is akin to Walmart pricing, you, the guest, assume you are getting a deal. Doesn’t $3.88 sound so much more palatable than $4?


Tips & Tricks

If you see three of the same type of item, let’s say three steaks, the middle typically will sell the best. My favorite trick, the $100 ribeye for two, isn’t there to necessarily sell, it’s there to make the $65 duck breast appear more reasonably priced. Don’t even get me started on a Tomahawk, which is just a ribeye with the bone still attached, the guest is paying $40+ for the pageantry of the bone.

Keep an eye out for the words “fresh” and “ripe”. Of course, you’d expect the ingredients of your meal to be nothing but fresh and ripe. So why are these terms spread liberally over the menus of some eateries but are absent from the descriptions of the dishes at others?

I could go on and on. The point is, if you know what you are looking for on a menu, you can often find the best three to four items. These are the items that are priced fairly and are typically the favorite dish from the kitchen. If all else fails, ask your server to help you. They are your true advocates. 

By the way, check out the new menu below for Stomping Ground dinner which starts next Thursday night!

Stomping Ground Dinner Menu


  • The latest from Nicole
Head Janitor, Chef, and Proprietor | Stomping Ground
Nicole’s cooking style is rooted in, but not limited to, her love of southern biscuits and her diverse culinary upbringing. A military brat, she spent her childhood in the Chicago suburbs enjoying her great-grandmother Mae’s Lithuanian cooking. As a tween, she moved to Paulding County, Ga. where she begrudgingly fell in love with the charmingly perplex small towns of the Deep South. She fondly remembers grubbing on Martin’s biscuits, late-night Waffle House debauchery and cooking with her family. After graduating from the University of Georgia, Nicole started a marketing career at an art nonprofit in Atlanta. At 25 years old, she became the youngest executive at the local Atlanta NPR affiliate. Chasing her dreams, she moved to Alexandria, Va. where she took a short post in the Whole Foods marketing department. Realizing that cooking had been her true love all along, she began night courses at L’Academie de Cuisine. She completed her apprenticeship at Blue Duck Tavern where she was promoted to a line cook after graduation. From there, Nicole worked as a private chef for busy Washington D.C. executives and their families. As grown-ups tend to do, Nicole realized something about her childhood — the best parts were enjoying small town communities, cooking with her great-grandmother and sharing meals with family and friends. She opened Stomping Ground to build a safe and welcoming community around yummy, handmade food from local sources. As her first foray running her own kitchen, she has shamelessly hired better, smarter cooks to fill her kitchen and your bellies. Her great-grandmother’s recipes often appear on the Stomping Ground menu without advertisement and, no, she won’t tell you the secret ingredients. Nicole lives in Del Ray and won’t shut up about how much she loves living there.

If you wander down Del Ray’s, “The Avenue,” you won’t miss the farm-red building with a rustic fence bordering the patio. Stomping Ground opened two years ago and quickly became popular for its made-from-scratch biscuits and its neighborhood vibe. On weekends, excited guests line up before Stomping Ground opens hoping to be the first to get a just-out-of-the-oven biscuit or a fresh salad. Stomping Ground is mostly known for its fast casual breakfast and lunch but on Thursdays and Fridays they provide a full dinner service after 5:00pm. All meals are built from local, seasonal food that is organic whenever possible.

2309 Mt Vernon Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22301


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