Mangled menus

Note: this was originally posted on my work website but it’s probably more at home here.

It’s a truism that we eat with our eyes. The appearance of food is inseparable from how it tastes; indeed, experiments have shown that even skilled chefs are sometimes unable to identify flavours if presented to them in an unfamiliar context.

This is why plating and presentation are almost as important as seasoning in restaurant kitchens. It’s why chefs pare and peel and primp as well as sip and sniff. It’s why restaurants spend money on decoration and fittings, on uniforms for the front-of-house staff, and on mood-enhancing lighting.

Then they present the menu.

This really is the first step in eating with one’s eyes. The written descriptions of the food in the menu are the shop fronts for the creations of the chef. No matter how delicious or well-presented the dishes prepared in the kitchen might be, if the menu doesn’t sell them to the customer, they will remain unseen and untasted.

Wording a menu is not a straightforward process. Too elaborate a description and a dish can appear pretentious; too simple, and important details can be omitted. Added to this is the minefield of providing menus in different languages. I see this all the time in Barcelona, even in fine dining restaurants: mangled, misspelled and mistranslated Spanglish, often hilariously so.

It’s also common to see a translation of the à la carte menu but not of the daily specials. This might not seem too important — after all, tourists or visitors can still order something — but it’s a harmful business error. The daily specials are often what’s best in a restaurant: the freshest fish, a find from the morning market, the seasonal speciality that the chef is proudest of…. by failing to offer these to foreign customers — each of whom is a potential on-line reviewer or provider of word-of-mouth recommendations — a restaurant fails to show the best of itself. And in the hyper-competitive Barcelona food scene, restaurants can’t afford to make such expensive mistakes.

Getting the à la carte menu professionally translated by someone with an understanding of the subject should be the absolute minimum for any restaurant. For less than the price of a typical single menu del día, the daily specials could be professionally translated too. Anything less is a disservice to the kitchen staff. And anyone who thinks that Google Translate is up to the task should try it in reverse: cut & paste in a menu from a quality UK or US restaurant and look at the automatic Catalan or Spanish result. Now ask yourself if you think any chef would be happy to have his creations presented like that…

A counter argument is that the front-of-house staff can explain the menu in English. Well… sometimes they can. Most often they can’t. Six months spent working or studying in England several years ago, often surrounded by other Spaniards, probably doesn’t qualify waiters to explain the subtleties of regional cuisine. And from the customer’s point of view, it’s much easier to consider unfamiliar menu choices when not simultaneously engaged in a “What was the first one again?”-style memory challenge.

So what’s the worst example of menu translation you’ve read? Any famous name foul-ups? Let’s name and shame the culprits…






  1. Emma Costello Avatar
    Emma Costello

    Eggs attacked with ham is one of mu favourites….it was supposed to be scrambled eggs and ham!!!!

    Cafe was eat22 in the office block on bac de rosa in poble nou

  2. Johanna Avatar

    When I lived in Japan I saw hilarious menu English all the time. Things like “Chicken for the ladies that got burnt with the oven”!

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