Off the Menu: When Dishes Disappear

What does it take for a chef to remove a dish from a restaurant menu? A Yelp, a complaint or the sounds of silence?

The review on spared no feelings.

“The mac n cheese was just gross. The cheese was POWDERED and it wasn’t even completely melted. … I’ll bet my whole meal that easy mac is better than this.”

This was posted on June 28.  By June 29, City Tap House had removed the offending dish from their menu.

But what the review didn’t say was this:  The dish came with a side of cherry tomatoes roasted in a balsamic vinaigrette that, when mixed with the noodles, created a dish akin to baked ziti, but ten times better.  Plenty of “yelpers” liked it — including this writer.  So when a waiter revealed that the mac had been pulled due to customer complaints — there were more than that one blistering critique, apparently — it was somewhat shocking.  And produced a slew of questions: if mac-n-cheese isn’t safe, what is? What makes a chef pull something off the menu? And how do you know if your favorite dish is at risk of disappearing?

The short answer: there is no short answer.  It truly depends on the restaurant.

Take Marigold Kitchen, for example.  Chances are, you already know not to get too attached to anything on that menu, because changes come almost weekly in an attempt to be as seasonal as possible.  There’s even a disclaimer on their online menu noting that “some menu items are subject to change” due to ingredient availability.

One time, however, Marigold had to take something off the menu because they were too creative for their own good.

The dish was called Mushroom Frenzy, and it involved mushrooms that were steamed and served in parchment paper — paper that was intended to be decoration only.  However, according to chef Rob Halpern, some patrons left comments saying something to the effect of, “The puff pastry wasn’t too tasty.”

In part because of mushroom prices and in part because of this confusion, the dish was pulled from the menu.  “Maybe we should have done a better job letting them know it wasn’t edible,” Halpern said with a laugh.

While Halpern’s parchment predicament certainly isn’t typical, it does represent the need for restaurants to be as reactive as possible in an age where bad reviews can spread like wildfire through the web.

Distrito chef Tim Spinner says he’s never been in the position of needing to remove a menu item due to customer dissatisfaction, but all it would take is three or four complaints and a dish would be gone.  Spinner also keeps his eye on patrons’ tabs — not to see what they’re eating, but what they’re not eating.

“There’re some items that just [don’t] sell,” he said, explaining that he will give a dish two months to improve its sales before removing it from the menu.  Victims of the two-month-test have included, somewhat surprisingly, items like the butternut squash quesadilla and pomegranate salad, and somewhat unsurprisingly, more exotic items like the bone marrow taco and the cactus and crab huarache.

And then there are times when a dish is introduced the menu, received with open arms… and disappears nonetheless.  At Morton’s The Steakhouse, that’s exactly what happened with a crab and artichoke dip: it was popular in Philly but not in other markets, so it was removed from the Morton’s menu.

“It was delicious,” said Morton’s sales manager Steve McGrath. “I don’t know why it wasn’t popular in other places.”

But when a restaurant is one of 75 across the country (as Morton’s is), a positive opinion in one city isn’t enough to counterbalance what people are saying in other locations.  Likewise, McGrath said that if an item isn’t selling well in Philly but is doing well elsewhere, it probably won’t budge from the menu.

For all the power of consumer feedback, some factors in a changed menu have nothing to do with what diners say or do.

“We had a restaurant in LBI called Blue,” said Bruno Pouget, co-owner of Noble: American Cookery.  “And the tuna tartar was very very popular.  But we changed our executive chef.”  And with the chef, so went the tartar.

“I think it was fine, because we replaced the dish with other great ones,” said Pouget.  “Blue was also a seasonal restaurant—dishes [were always] changing.”

And if there’s one thing that sophisticated foodies love, it’s a seasonal menu.  At least, that’s what Gordon Dinerman, general manager of City Tap House, is banking on.

“I would love to have a menu and do it for five years and say ‘this is us,’ but you can’t do that anymore,” he said.  “People are looking for diversity.”

Dinerman insists that it’s this quest for diversity and seasonality — and not reports of complaints — that led to the removal of the Tap House mac-n-cheese.

“We couldn’t agree whether we liked it or not [for the summer],” he said.  “We thought it was more of a fall type of dish, rather than a middle-of-the-summer, blaring-heat type of dish.  But it’s something that will be back in the fall, without a doubt.”

Yelpers, mark your calendars.

* City Tap House mac-n-cheese photo via Yelp