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The Death of the Menu

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I already know what I'm having is a phrase you will hear echoing around every restaurant in town these days. Formerly the pastime of only neurotics and dieters (and certainly neurotic dieters), scoping out a menu online before even setting foot in the restaurant has become an extension of today's reservation process. It's an accepted activity and increasingly an expected one- god forbid you introduce a silence into a dinner date by brazenly scanning the menu to see what the place actually serves.

Since we can only expect to see our friends if we book them three weeks in advance, sending Google invites for Wahaca and being careful to specify whether the plan is being penned or penciled in, there is a great deal more onus on the event itself. Not only must the venue be at the right price point and in a convenient location, but people want, nay need, to know exactly what they will be ordering. Lunchbreaks at work are spent analysing and putting together food combinations that are (casually) committed to memory. When diners arrive at the table, conversation flow is immediate and unbroken, save a play-acting glance at the menu, followed by a decisive nod and recital of the order. Nothing like a bit of social spontaneity.

The motives behind this are multifarious. The menu tyrant could be carb dodging that night in a bid to sport the new season bodycon (just the chicken salad please, no croutons). They may have decided that morning that it was going to be a bleak day in the office so they would damn well 'pig out' that evening (does the steak come with triple cooked chips?); perhaps the bill was even being taken care of ('what other sides do you suggest?). Or perhaps they're on a hot date and considering their chances of success in direct relation to how messily they eat (give lobster a miss) or how awkwardly they do it (just pick up the burger). All valid reasons.

But what does this say about us, beyond the harmless desire to prepare a food choice to fit the situation?

There was a time, not so long ago, when going out for dinner was looked forward to for the very element of surprise we are now stomping all over. It generated that same feeling you got when opening Christmas presents after having spent weeks compiling a list of options for your family; you knew roughly what you could be getting, but nothing has been set in stone. Just as we are becoming more prescriptive with our stocking demands- it's not I'd like some make up but rather I want the Mac extra volume mascara in blue noir- we are also becoming increasingly specific and pernickety about how we curate our dining events. If there's a chicken breast on the menu, we'd like to know if it comes with spinach or salsify- this could be the deal breaker.

Even social meet-ups in the private sphere are under the attack of friendship group who judge and critique all. They are either off dairy for a week, so need to know the menu in advance, or you have foolishly agreed to a Come Dine with Me recreation, with choice cuts from the Ginger Pig and blow torches at the ready. And, much to our delight, the menus are sent to our inboxes days before we sit down at their table. The relief is palpable.

You could say that our frantic need to know is the natural result of having access to too many online platforms - it's all the information, at all times. Certainly the rise of the blogger and twittersphere has overexposed us to every inch of the restaurant business with photos of the food and the menus littering Twitpic and Instagram. Should the restaurant withhold full disclosure by posting merely a 'sample menu' or even nothing at all, we feel like our reservation has been a shot in the dark.

But why shouldn't we have the freedom to pre-plan our meals. Why indeed. But enough of the play acting and menu scanning I beg you, just come out of the closet.