Adventures in Menu-Reading

There’s a restaurant I like called Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain with good (and health-conscious) food, known for its baked goods, strong coffee, and rustic wooden decor that includes one large communal table.

It isn’t inexpensive, but it’s the kind of place that doesn’t mind if you camp out for a while and play backgammon, which I sometimes do.

In the past, I occasionally ordered the Mediterranean platter or maybe the Tuscan platter. But the other day, I noticed something strange on the menu. These two platters had been grouped under a new heading: “Sharing Platters.”

Huh? I’d never shared them before. Had they suddenly gotten larger?

No. In fact, when I asked the manager I was told that they’d actually gotten a bit smaller, thanks to a smaller portion of accompanying bread. So why are they suddenly “sharing platters”?

As we’ve blogged earlier, chain restaurants in New York City must now list caloric information on their menus. As you can see from the menu below, Le Pain Quotidien is complying nicely; which means that these two platters, weighing in at 1,140 calories and 1,320 calories respectively, have been deemed no longer fit for consumption by one person. Now they are “sharing platters” (ah, menu nomenclature), replete with asterisk: “serves two or more.”


So the bad news is that the Mediterranean platter is less appealing than it once was. The good news is that calorie-listing laws may create jobs for clever menu writers.

For further reading, here’s a Financial Times article on Le Pain Quotidien, and an Economist article on New York’s new law, with this surprising bit about Le Pain Quotidien:

Jack Moran, the company’s vice president of branding, initially thought it was “frightening” that customers would be able to see the calories in everything on the menu. So he put together a team to overhaul the menu, cutting portions and eliminating items with lots of calories. This has proved, he says, a “strategic advantage” and boosted business. The company is now planning to provide calorie information voluntarily in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles — even though the local laws do not yet require it.


Nad, so it took you two posts and a dozen or two sentences of name-calling to tell us that in Europe you tip too? Why not just say that?!


Aren't carbs more important than calories?


@#12 - You fail to take into account the different practices of server compensation between Europe and the U.S. We tip, which means we subsidize restaurant prices, while you have a higher wage for waitstaff priced into your meal. That's at least one reason prices are higher. There's already been much discussion (and argument) about the merits of various practices on this blog.


I went to Five Guys for the first time since I moved to New York (it reminds me of my home in DC, or something...also, the burgers are really good) yesterday. After ordering I realized I was about to eat over 1400 calories. I didn't finish the fries. I'm sure this will extend my life.

It was the first time the calorie postings really changed my behavior since I've moved here, and even then it was minimal. Although I'm guessing I'll eat there even less than I already do, considering how bad it really is (I knew it was bad, but man that is a scary number). Also, it's 50% more expensive than in the Maryland suburbs of DC, where I would usually get it ($15 for a burger-fries-drink as opposed to $10).


I'm sure some 18 year old, pimpled-face kid made up the calorie count numbers anyway.

Note to Le Pain Quotidien management - change the Seaweed Salad to 99 calories.


Do you remember "ladies menus" - that don't have prices in them so that girls could order the most expensive stuff without having a bad conscience ("Jez, I wonder, whether lobster, champagne and caviar are expensive...") ? Maybe we'll seen have something similar for calories and you can choose whether you want the menu with or without calories :-).


Why not have no law forcing businesses to list the caloric content of their food? Then, if the public truly demands to have calories listed on the menu, let a savvy restaurateur supply them with that very thing, thus rewarding his/her business practices with increased patronage.

If the people really want it, then businesses will do it to attract more customers. If you need a law to force businesses to do it, chances are the people never wanted it in the first place.

Which way is more democratic?



I don't get it. There are different systems in place in this country and in various Western European countries. I've seen it with my own eyes.

Instead of snidely telling me I'm a dumb American, perhaps you could point out why I'm wrong. Or maybe you'd prefer to perpetuate the stereotype of the smug, snooty, and condescending European?


I think this is a GREAT idea to show the calories on menus. In most Japanese fastfood restaurants they do exactly that (not required by law) and are appreciated by the customers. As argued in above comments, that it is NOT “fair”, in a way, because by showing the calories, the producer must reduce the size of the plate, and yet charge the same price. However, from a economic point of view, every buyers make decisions according to whether their wanting-ness of goods/services overweighs the price - so it is fair in a competitive market. Also, another problem customers face is the “asymmetric information”: ie - not having enough information, anytime considering to buy the goods/service with the money they have or spend it on something else. But revealing calories will make their life easier for those who care about health and those who just want it regardless of the calories. Therefore, it is a excellent to reveal calories to be FAIR and make the trade (sell-buy) easier.



This is yet another example of how we are all fooled in our daily activities. Because of this new law, the menus have to list the calories, which discourage people from buying high-calorie food. As a consequence the restaurant reduces the portion so that the calories are less but leaves the price the same or maybe even higher. Some people can argue that this is good for the restaurant, but is it really? Because of the new law, people will be much more conscious of what they are eating since the caloric content of the foods is at their reach and will maybe eat less or go with smaller portions, which are less expensive. This may not mean that the restaurant will not benefit from upholding original prices but they will not benefit completely because the calories serve, in a way, as a discouragement to order more food.


Thing is calories are just one part of knowing whats in your food.

I mean what about salt or saturated fat? Overdoing it on these is not great for your health.



And I couldn't disagree with you more. It is not stupidity to be only casually interested in counting calories - for many it is simply practical. But the fact that so many Americans are trending toward obesity which has a directly attributable negative social externalities makes it necessary for the casually interested to be empowered with such accessible information. You are correct that more will be paid for dining outside the home in the short term. Patrons will tend to order fewer dishes and smaller portions - although it would be interesting to see if the caloric totals provide a distraction with this new metric for comparison shoppers enabling establishments to charge more and achieve greater revenue for lower calorie dishes.

Additionally, this kind of cultural shift has many positive externalities. Healthier people tend to be more productive thus stimulating the economy. Less demand for healthcare reduces insurance premiums, etc.

The implementation costs for these businesses are nominal - this is indeed responsible public policy.



Agreed. It is not exactly rocket science to work out which meal has more calories and which less. It is also a matter of common sense that large meal can be shared.

On our arrival in Canada with two small children, our first morning in a hotel, we ordered one Big Breakfast and four plates. Fed the whole family no problem.

Sharing MacDonald's between the two kids when they were small was routine. Neither has body fat much over 6% now that they are grown up.


Restaurants in New York now have to place the amount of calories per plate on their menu for consumer protection. In order to make the amount of calories more appealing to the consumer, the restaurant now reduces the quantity of food served yet the price remains the same. Is this really for the benefit of the customer? Is there really a reason why the customer should have to pay more when receiving less?

The restaurants should simply comply with the law by stating how many calories are in a plate; the decision to eat the entire meal should be left to the consumer. If he/she wishes to eat the entire meal, it is their choice that they made with full knowledge of the amount of calories.


This is a very interesting menu, very few restaurants inform the costumer how much calories, he or she is about to consume. Probably this menu will incentive constumers to buy healthier food, at the same price the restaurants already had them. But perhaps with smaller portions, therefore the restaurants will benefit, even though they will have more work having to deduce calories for each meal. Probablly this will also show the costumers how the restaurants care for their health, making the restaurant probably even more popular.


Those prices are a about 30% less than what we see in an average cafe in Europe. Add in to this the exchange rate and no wonder Europe seems expensive to Americans right now.

I'm currently in Poland, one of the 'poorer/new' European countries, where average wages are 2500 PLN per month (about 800 Euros) yet the prices in cafes are still higher than what the above menu indicates - oh to live in a realistic society!!@!




A Belgian place without Moule Frites. What's the point?


So is there a fee imposed to share those items (as one typically finds when ordering an item to share)?

Nad Vega

@ #29, #30 - Guys, do your public image a favor and refrain from saying things like that outside of the Internet where you are essentially anonymous :). I hate the stereotype that Americans tend to be ignorant about the rest of the world, but people like you do such a good job reinforcing it that sometimes I fear we, Europeans respectful towards the U.S., will at some point lose this battle.

Joe D

It is spectacularly obvious, however, that the sharing platters have the lowest cost per calorie. And at twice the calorie count of the Gruyere tartine for 80% of the cost, I'd have no problem ordering that to share.