Restaurant Menus

On a restaurant menu, which phrase suggests you can order something separately, instead of as part of an entire meal?

And the answer: A la carte.      

A la carte is a French phrase, literally translating to "by the card." Certain items on a restaurant menu may be offered a la carte – for example, you might order toast or bacon by itself, instead of an entire breakfast meal.

Photo credit: Restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com  

Although it's hard to picture a reality without them, using menus is a practice that's taken on many different forms over the centuries of their use. The first people to use menus in their more modern iteration (meaning, not on ancient Sumerian stone slabs) were the Chinese. During the Song Dynasty around 1100 CE, the first business resembling modern restaurants appeared in urban centers. Unlike inns, which served whatever food was prepared that day, these restaurants presented patrons with a list of items to choose from. According to records from this time, there were over 600 items to choose from in tea shops, restaurants, and other eating establishments across cities such as Hangzhou.

Meanwhile, in Europe, fine dining establishments and public restaurants did not exist until the late 1700s. Instead, the only way to "eat out" was at a tavern or inn, where everyone received the same meal. Yet it is France that we have to thank for much of our modern day conceptualization of menus, including the word itself! Derived from the Latin word minutus, the word "menu" was first used to describe anything small and detailed. Originally, any brief list of information was considered to be a menu. It wasn't until the rise of restaurants in early 19th century France that the word took on a new meaning.

In the 1830s, Delmonico's became New York City's first establishment to give diners the option to order individual items off of a menu. French words decorated the menu, many of which (such as a la carte) remain today.

Learn more about the history of menus here.


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