Credit: Illustration by Max Kornell

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The new Ceviche in Glover Park looks much like the original in Silver Spring, just a little more cramped, like it might have been squeezed in a trash compactor. The menu is much the same, too. Order a classic-style seviche, a shallow bowl of white fish drowning in lime juice, and you’ll pay $9. Place an order of corn fritters, and it’ll cost you $7. Ask for the entree of churrascos al chimichurri, and you’ll shell out $19.

At least that’s how they’re priced at the Glover Park location. In Silver Spring, you’ll pay $10, $8, and $21, respectively, for those same three dishes. What gives? Is Latin Concepts founder MauricioFraga-Rosenfeld, the man behind these operations and several other fashionable restaurant-lounges, just gouging Silver Springers?

Not exactly.

“We’re new [in Glover Park]. We haven’t promoted [the restaurant]. We want people to come and try the food. We don’t want to scare anybody,” says Fraga-Rosenfeld, just weeks after opening the second location. “We want to learn about them. We want them to get comfortable with us. If we see they’re comfortable in this place and there’s a window to raise price, we will raise. But if the window’s not there, we will not raise the price.”

This marketing function—creating good will among new and impressionable customers—is one of many silent jobs that restaurateurs make their menus do, particularly at new establishments where owners, like Fraga-Rosenfeld, are rolling the dice on a certain neighborhood and hoping to hell that diners take to it.

The upstarts hope that diners see themselves among the apps, entrees, and desserts—their tastes, certainly, but even a bit of their class identity as reflected through the prices and the sophistication of the food. At the same time, menus serve as a restaurateur’s proxy—a written-word envoy representing the owner’s motivations and machinations—in a battle to win diners’ loyalties. And, of course, the menu also acts as a restaurant’s main tool to generate cash.

But menus seem to almost have a mind of their own. Despite an owner’s best effort to manipulate them to serve so many purposes, they routinely turn against their masters. Consider the case of Peter Smith, chef and owner of PS 7’s.

Smith, the former Vidalia chef, hadn’t worked professionally in a kitchen for nearly two years when he opened PS 7’s in 2006; he had spent much of that downtime scouting locations, developing his menu, and building out his new restaurant. Smith knew the first cardinal rule of menu creation is to shape yours to fit the market. His market would be a rapidly Americanized Chinatown that attracts “a lot of affluent people that come to eat, like to eat, and are foodies.” He thought the neighborhood would be perfect for his cutting-edge concept of fine-dining.

His opening-day menu was divided into seven columns—in a sort of self-conscious nod to the name of his restaurant, a combination of Smith’s initials and the joint’s address, 777 I St. NW. The idea was that diners would create their own tasting menu from dishes listed under each column—most of the plates being small, four-bite offerings. The menu was really a paper embodiment of Smith’s preferred way to dine, which he wanted to impose on his new Chinatown diners, folks perhaps more accustomed to grabbing quick, casual meals before a Wizards game.

With this kind of menu, “you can kind of bounce around and try different things and see what the restaurant’s about as opposed to committing to one appetizer, one entree, and then you have dessert, and then you’re on your way,” Smith says.

There was only one problem: The menu might as well have been written in Chinese to those diners who couldn’t decipher it.

The complaints were frequent enough that Smith, about seven months ago, switched to a menu that places his innovative dishes into far more recognizable categories. “Our menu was very ambitious and over-the-top, and it probably scared some people,” the chef says about his original approach. “I think the reality is that someone that wants to do a tasting menu, they really want the tasting menu laid out for them….I guess maybe it’s too much work [to do it yourself].”

The experience, however, hasn’t completely scared Smith from trying again. He plans to reintroduce the concept in a modified form: as a separate tapas menu from which diners can put together their own meal. It could hit the mark: Tapas are not a foreign concept to Chinatown; La Tasca already blazed that trail. “As the neighborhood kind of comes in and grows,” Smith believes, “we’re going to grow with them.”

Just a few blocks to the south, on F Street NW, the Star Restaurant Group has had no trouble fitting into Penn Quarter with Zola, a modern American restaurant cloaked in a swank, red-velvet spy motif. Penn Quarter itself played a role in how Dan Mesches, Star president and CEO, created both his menu and his concept. Back in 2000 when Zola was just being conceived, the ’hood was already home to José Andrés’ Jaleo and Café Atlántico, but it was not yet the moneyed playground it is today. Mesches predicted that would change.

“It seemed clear that it was going to become a young professional, kind of hip area,” he says. “So I knew that I wanted to push the menu that way. I also knew that I wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant—but a neighborhood restaurant with a national prominence.”

Zola’s opening-day menu, under chef Phillip Carroll, covered almost every base. It featured pork sandwiches, hamburgers, and crab cakes for those who wanted a quick bite before a concert at the then MCI Center. It also offered osso buco, blood sausage, and a risotto paired with fried oysters and tasso ham to attract suburban diners looking for more intrigue. The menu was an immediate hit.

In March 2003, just months after the operation opened, Marian Burros of the New York Times wrote, “Zola, in the newly sparkling neighborhood of Penn Quarter, has become Washington’s hottest new restaurant….”

“Zola’s ascendancy to the height of culinary fashion in this buttoned-up city,” Burros wrote, “was assured one night in early February when Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, descended the restaurant’s stairs just as Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing arrived after a Washington Wizards basketball game in the nearby MCI Center.”

If Mesches and Star scored with Zola, they flopped with its casual sister operation, Spy City Cafe—or at least flopped with part of it. Mesches had worked out a deal with Kaz Okochi, chef at Kaz Sushi Bistro, to make sushi for the cafe, thinking the neighborhood would want a lighter, fresher option for lunch or a snack.

“That totally failed, and it wasn’t because Kaz isn’t great, because he is. It was just that [sushi] wasn’t what people were looking for,” Mesches says. “Personally, for me, I was upset, because I just like to have it everyday.…I was probably blinded more by what I love.”

If there’s a common element among opening-day menus, it’s that they all include at least one dog, that dish no diner wants to touch. At Spy City Cafe, it was the sushi. At PS 7’s, it was octopus prepared three ways. At Addie’s, the first restaurant Jeff and Barbara Black ever opened, it was mussels cooked in a spicy broth with merguez sausage.

“It was very flavorful,” Black remembers of the mussels. “It was a tomato-based sauce. The sauce took me a full day to make the base….It never sold.”

For obvious reasons, restaurateurs want to cull the dogs from their menus, but the best owners will first try to figure out why no one likes these hounds in the first place. It could be that the line cooks aren’t skilled enough to execute the chef’s recipe. It could be the dish is just too expensive. Or it could be that the entree is simply ahead of its time, which was the case with Black’s mussels.

When Black opened Addie’s in 1998, the local dining scene was far different. “Most of your restaurants were very classic French, classic Italian, steakhouse, very approachable, stuff you knew from years ago,” Black recalls. “You certainly didn’t have a restaurant with yellow walls and clocks everywhere and hard tables and a guy charging you $20 for a piece of fish.”

But diners did eventually adapt to the quirky vibe and (at least then) adventurous menu at Addie’s. Within nine months of opening, Black reintroduced the mussels, and “it was the No. 1 selling dish,” he says. It was a case of a neighborhood ultimately embracing the image that Black had envisioned for it on his menu. It’s also an example that may give Peter Smith hope for PS 7’s in Chinatown.

Menus may be designed to reflect diners’ tastes and values, but if they don’t raise enough money for the restaurant, none of that matters. A menu’s performance is acutely important at start-up restaurants, where the owners have sunk lots of cash into a build-out, consultants, rent, inventory, marketing, and equipment. That’s why owners will constantly tinker with their menus, trying to find the right mix of soups and salads (high-profit-margin items) and steak-and-lobster entrees (typically margin suckers). A menu can’t feature all margin suckers, no matter how popular they are. Just ask Black, who put an $18 rib eye on Addie’s opening menu.

“I was taking a bath. I was getting killed, and it sold like crazy. This is why I had to change the menu,” Black says. He couldn’t ditch the fashionable steak, naturally, but he had to “create some dishes that are just as popular and that have a better food cost, or I’m going to be out of business.”

Learning how to price out a menu requires the skill of a serious bean counter—and perhaps a soothsayer. You have to figure all of your costs—even intangibles like waste and employee error—and roll it into the price on your menu. It’s far easier said than done, and errors in calculation can negatively impact every restaurant, even a place selling only falafel and fries.

Amsterdam Falafelshop owners Scott and Arianne Bennett “guesstimated” what the price would need to be for the falafel and fries. But then “we started doing it, and we realized that, really, if we were going to survive…we had to charge 50 cents more for everything we were making,” says Arianne Bennett. “We just had to, or we were going to not make it—no matter how many people came through the door.”

“It was a really painful choice for us to have to raise prices,” she adds. “It was painful for us. It was painful for us to tell it to our customers. It was not received with pleasure.”

When Latin Concept’s Fraga-Rosenfeld opened his first operation, Chi-Cha Lounge, in 1997, he made all the decisions about menu and pricing. It wasn’t exactly scientific, he confesses. But 10 years later, Latin Concepts is a “big organization, and before we open a place…we sit down among all seven or eights heads of the company, and we make the decisions together. We look at the numbers and make the decisions. But still it’s more like…what’s the word? Inside feeling?”

Intuitive?

“Intuitive, that’s the word,” Fraga-Rosenfeld says. “Still, a lot of the decisions are made because I think this is the way it should be working. I would look at the numbers, [but] sometimes, I don’t even listen to the numbers.”