There's so much anxiety that can go into eating and drinking out," says Will Thompson, beverage director at the newly opened Yvonne's, a swanky supper club-inspired restaurant (with dual bars) in Downtown Crossing. "It's insane, because what we say we all do for a living is hospitality. We should be about the dispelling of anxiety, right? You go out, and you don't want to feel like a dickhead."But sometimes — too often — menus are written in a way that can cause the customer to feel, well, like a dickhead.
"How are we coding information, and how are we using the tools we have to both be hospitable and be effective business people?" Thompson wonders. "We're producing menus which are both inhospitable and bad for business," he continues, adding that the problem is especially prevalent in wine, but it exists in the cocktail world as well. "It's got everything to do with how we're coding this information and how we are trying to take this language that we speak that no one else does. We forget all the time that this is an incredibly jargonistic language that we're using."
Designing a menu — from choosing its components to actually laying it out on paper — requires a careful balance, conveying the right amount of information (not too little, not too much) to clearly tell customers what's being offered without being patronizing — and still holding little nuggets of interesting information for people who want to get really geeky about what they're drinking.
Thompson points to Max Toste, co-owner of Deep Ellum and Lone Star Taco Bar, as someone who does a great job of finding that balance. "You look over at his whole menu, and if you want a sweet coffee drink, that's on there. If you want a crazy cachaça drink, that's on there. If you're really a dork and you're reading the menu, you can see that his markup on sherry is negligible. Without having to give away the house, you can code a menu in such a way that people who want to read it, who want that kind of core content, would be able to find what they're looking for. But people who are just in there because it's in the neighborhood would still feel welcome and be able to get the stuff they want."
Fortunately for the cocktail world as opposed to the wine world, most cocktail terms are pretty concrete, so finding that proper menu coding balance is perhaps more within reach. "Ginger, that's probably literally ginger," says Thompson. "That wine you say has lots of stone fruit in it actually does not have any stone fruit; it has fermented grapes." Wine lists, he says, tend to give the same few pieces of information: the grape, the region, the producer, the price. "It's useful to a point," he says, but there's a reliance on staff to be able to elucidate it all.
And then it comes back to the staffing problem that everyone keeps talking about.
"We're all complaining about the impossibility of staffing and the transience of staffing," says Thompson. "We will have great people, but we won't necessarily have them for the amount of time that it's going to take to get them really, deeply familiar with our 200 bottle, 300 bottle wine list. So how do we deal with that? I don't know. It's something I've been hitting my head on for a while."
A key piece of the puzzle is to produce a menu where "95% of the stuff is for 95% of the people and 5% of the stuff is for 5% of the people." In many ways, Yvonne's is the perfect playground to find that balance. Location-wise, right in the heart of Downtown Crossing in the beautifully remade former Locke-Ober space, it'd be simple to fall into a comfortable pattern aimed at facilitating the inevitable happy hour crowd. "It would be very, very easy to just let that be the only thing that happens here," says Thompson. "We'd put a burger on a menu, and I'd pick up ten more different kinds of vodka, and we'd just accept that we'll be busy three hours a day, except Thursday and Friday, when we'll be super busy. And we'd close on Sundays. But that's absolutely not what the owners want, and it's something that we're going to have to continue to work really hard to balance."
Indeed, Yvonne's staff is a clear indicator of the owners' intentions. Thompson's resume is packed full of iconic bar programs, from Drink to Brick & Mortar and beyond. The bar staff also includes familiar faces like Sean Sullivan (Drink, Straight Law) and Sean Frederick (Citizen Public House, Townsman). Likewise, Yvonne's ambitious culinary crew (Tom Berry of Proprietors in Nantucket; Juan Pedrosa of The Glenville Stops) has lofty goals that play in that ideal space between creativity and accessibility.
Thompson quotes Jon Santer, a renowned bartender from the San Francisco area, regarding cocktail menus — they should be "an exercise in hospitality, not creativity." It's such a simple philosophy, Thompson says, but "it was incredibly nice to have someone articulate it. I felt like I was at the border of that idea, but it would have taken me another twenty years to be able to articulate it that succinctly."
"It's an easy idea to completely miss while you're working to balance your menu or figure out cost or getting too concerned with trying to put on these cheap signifiers to tell people who we are," Thompson continues. Admitting that it's not a perfect analogy, he paints a picture of a middle school kid putting on a studded belt and declaring, 'Now I'm a punk rock kid.' When you look at the menu of a cocktail bar and see a bunch of obscure ingredients, it's the same thing — it's more the bar telling itself what it is than "successfully translating that message to someone else," says Thompson.
The simplest way that a cocktail menu can be hospitable — and you've probably seen this almost everywhere — is that it displays the most straight-forward drinks in the upper left. "The person who's looking for that drink, probably a vodka drink, does not want to read a cocktail menu. They're not here to check out what crazy stuff you're doing," says Thompson. "In the bottom right is probably your weirdest, most cocktail-y drink, because the person who wants that is going to read the whole menu anyway — probably twice — and they're going to have a lot of opinions by the time they get to the end of it."
That's the "most superficial, literal way" to start thinking about coding menus hospitably, and it's already something that most bars consider, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.
Whatever factors a bar considers, it all comes back to making the customer feel comfortable. "There's this crazy anxiety," says Thompson. "You're on a date, you have X amount of money to spend, and you don't want to feel like a rube. You don't want to look stupid in front of whomever you're with. We've done the world's worst job, collectively, of providing people with that information. Why aren't we able to connect people with the information to allow them to have the things that they want, inside of the context of what we are willing and able to offer?"
That context is important: It's not not hospitable to decide, as a restaurant, not to offer something. "It's our prerogative to not offer vodka Red Bulls," says Thompson. "The chef doesn't make Big Macs. I think these are reasonable things."
But the point is to not make someone feel stupid or uncomfortable for ordering a vodka Red Bull or for not realizing that it's not that kind of a place. A well-coded menu would convey that right off the bat, minimizing a potentially awkward interaction that a customer would have to endure.
"The worst thing we can do is make somebody feel like a dickhead," says Thompson. "That's it. I would rather mess up every drink and every plate of food and have you feel like we are the ones who are stupid — well, I don't want to do any of that — but I would rather do that than structure service in such a way that it is indecipherable and uncomfortable for people to interact with."