Study finds most Australians find restaurant menus too confusing

A Chinese banquet of choice at Fitzroy's Ricky and Pinky.
A Chinese banquet of choice at Fitzroy's Ricky and Pinky. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Pan haggerty. Mirepoix. Salmagundi. Do these food words flip you into a state of confusion? Do they have you scratching your head and consulting the Google gods? Do you feel more comfortable ordering a burger than a beignet? It's OK. You're not alone.

A new study conducted by Galaxy Research for online booking site OpenTable has found 83 per cent of Australians feel restaurant menus are more confusing than they need to be. Of the 1265 respondents surveyed across Australia, 74 per cent said they have had to ask a waiter or waitress to explain a menu item when dining at a cafe or restaurant.

The numbers seem to check out. Gone are the days when souffle was the most exotic dish on the carte. Navigating a contemporary menu might require knowledge of everything from Japanese micro-greens to edible Australian tubers to the maccheroni variations of Abruzzo and Molise.

At its worst, this is chefs being cheffy for ego's sake. Cookbook narcissism, engineered to impress rather than delight. "Please, tell me more about this kudzu gel, it's ever so fascinating. And what of this fermented quahog?"

74 per cent of Australians said they have had to ask a waiter or waitress to explain a menu item when dining at a cafe or restaurant.

74 per cent of Australians said they have had to ask a waiter or waitress to explain a menu item when dining at a cafe or restaurant.

We're seeing less of that look-at-me toffery in Australia, though. If a menu features words like binchotan, blachan and boletes it's likely because the chef has a ferocious appetite for new ingredients and wants you to experience something delicious.

The research also showed that 40 per cent of Australians have felt too embarrassed to ask a waiter or waitress to explain an item on the menu. This is no good at all. Restaurants should be about having fun. Drinking great wines. Eating new things.

Australians should be excited to see a new food term instead of feeling like a drongo. Any restaurant worth its Himalayan rock salt will have staff that know the menu back to front and be happy chat about the majesty of magpie goose or the acid of a Davidson plum.  


Yes, a real life conversation. Person to person. Waiters (the good ones, at least) really, really, really hate it when you Google an ingredient or wine instead of asking them.

"Diners should be able to trust their waiters and trust the chefs," says James Foley, restaurant manager of the two-hatted Gerard's Bistro in Brisbane. "We're in this industry to provide the best service we can and knowledge is a major part of that. When diners read Wikipedia or the highest hit on Google, it doesn't necessarily reflect what the kitchen is trying to do."

A good waiter will be able to place unfamiliar ingredients in a local context like the internet can't.

"We deal with a lot of big, bold flavours at Gerard's that many Australians don't experience on a daily basis," says Foley.  We're conscious of the fact it can be a challenging menu but that's not something people should be scared of. The goal is to provide a delicious experience and it's the waiter's job to have a conversation with customers so they're not intimidated or confused by the unfamiliar."

Like most of Australia's top restaurants, Gerard's holds regular menu tastings for floor staff and provides comprehensive notes for each dish, detailing cooking methods and ingredients. (For reference, the Middle-Eastern-leaning restaurant's current menu features macadamia tarator, ful medames, epoisse mousse, kishk and morasa polow.)  

Gerard's Bistro bekaa wings with kishk yoghurt.

Gerard's Bistro bekaa wings with kishk yoghurt. Photo: Supplied

Sally Rutter is a 34-year-old nurse from Brisbane who dines out regularly and loves to discover new dishes. Rutter says she prefers to Google foreign ingredients than ask a waitperson.

"If there's something on the menu I don't recognise, it's a delicious mystery I can't pass up. I consult Google because heaven forbid I should look a fool in front of the waiter. I also want a detailed answer with information on the ingredient's history and origins. 'It's a kind of bean' isn't enough."

Foley says customers should never feel embarrassed to ask questions or stumble over the pronunciation of foreign terms in front of waitstaff. "We're not here to make you feel like an idiot. Our primary goal is to make sure our guests have a fantastic time. A good waiter won't care if you mispronounce a wine or ingredient. They just want you to enjoy it."

According to the OpenTable research the top ten most misunderstood menu items in Australia are:

1. Mirepoix
2. Salmagundi
3. Shakshuka
4. Pan haggerty
5. Meuniere
6. Beignet
7. En papillote
8. Lardo
9. Amuse bouche
10. Blanquette de veau