The Tasting Menu is Back: Discuss

Back? Did it ever go away? And where did it come from?

Maybe it was just in my newspapers of choice (yes, paper ones, and yes, I do know how that dates me) but I've been reading a lot about this recently. Stuart Ralston is one of Scotland's most influential chefs (Aizle, Noto, Tipo and now Lyla). It's perfectly understandable that he seems to be in the foreground of the recent discussions on the topic.

We'll come back to that. I've recently written one or two slightly depressing pieces about the restaurant trade, but in the last year or two there's been a lot of positive news. Michelin stars in Glasgow at last (Unalome and Cail Bruich); a second two star place in Scotland (The Glenturret Lalique joining Perthshire neighbour Andrew Fairlie). There has been a slew of openings in the high end part of the Edinburgh market, Lyla, Cardinal, ASKR. All good, all positive. And how many of these have been written up to delight the Tom Eats! readership? Not that many is the reply. And they all have tasting menus. Is this a coincidence?

If your dining experiences are restricted to Britain, you might think the tasting menu is a relatively new phenomenon. But if you've spent any time in France you'll be well aware of the menu dégustation. Like the Italians, French cooks and chefs are far more dictated to by seasonality and availability than by what was on the carte last week. You run a small place? Buy what's good, what's fresh, and no more than you need. The result is usually a delight. (Oh, and the chef is usually anonymous.)

As chefs became stars in the 1990s, things began to change. The two chefs who are credited (if that's the correct word) with the rise of the tasting menu are Ferren Adrià at El Bulli, near Barcelona and Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in California. Meals there were 50 and 40 courses respectively. Never been to either, but it sounds exhausting.

As the trend grew, food writers started to rebel. Writing in Vanity Fair in 2013, Corby Kummer penned a piece entitled Tyranny: It's What's For Dinner. He wrote, The entire experience they will consent to offer is meant to display the virtuosity not of cooks but of culinary artists. A diner’s pleasure is secondary; subjugation to the will of the creative genius comes first, followed, eventually, by stultified stupefaction.

He continued, As more and more restaurants adopt this model, tasting-only menus will empower formerly well-meaning, eager-to-please cooks and servers to become petty despots, and more and more diners will discover that absolute power irritates absolutely.

Yet Stuart Ralston and other well respected professionals insist this is the way forward. Let's consider some pros and cons.

From the chef's point of view, it allows them to control costs, streamline menus and eliminate waste. In a recent article I looked at restaurant economics. If we love these places and want them to survive, then surely we must buy into this? OK, guys, I was nice to you a few weeks ago. Now can I put the punters' point of view?

A good tasting menu can be a thing of delight. A great chance for chefs to display skills. I love the dinky wee canapés with which you usually start. It's often great value because of the little freebies which are slipped in. Intercourses, you might say. But. I knew you were sensing a but. More than one, in fact.

Yes, one is served a lot of food. In fact, it's often far too much. I remember giving up before the end at Andrew Fairlie, and actually feeling quite unwell. Let's consider cost. In the few places where they give themselves the worst of both worlds by offering an a la carte menu as well as a tasting one, the latter is often much better value; however, all things are relative.  Consider the new places which I have been remiss in failing to review and the cost of their tasting menus.

Glenturret Lalique - £195; Cail Bruich - £160; Cardinal - £110; ASKR - £115; Lyla £165. That's per head of course, and before you have a drop to drink and before service charge is added. (By way of contrast, full marks to Duthchas, recently opened on the site of the old Aurora in Leith, which offers a Wee Taster Menu at £55 for three courses plus canapes and petit fours.)

Food of that quality demands good wine, and they'll all be happy to offer matching wine "flights". In Restaurant Martin Wishart, the prestige flight will set you back £280. With your service charge and the cost of getting there and back, it doesn't take much imagination to see your evening leave you no change from 600 quid. For many, that's a complete barrier: for me, it means it's something to do but rarely.

But, but, but. The cost isn't the worst part. Staff training is vital in all establishments; however, may I make a suggestion? No one should be allowed to serve a tasting menu unless they have Honours Degree standard waiting skills and a minimum of five years experience. The number of dinners which are ruined because of the incessant chat about the food knows no bounds. And the staff are usually young and keen, and the chefs are usually trying very hard to impress with unusual ingredients. Trust me, that's a toxic combination. Like many diners, I've eaten a lot of food in my time, and I probably know what most ingredients are. Please! Just give me a half decent menu and ask me if I have any questions. But no! There's usually a script to be gone through, whether you want it or not. And you'll get it eight times in the meal (once per course), plus an extra for the amuse-bouche and the pre dessert. And if you were stupid enough to order the wine flight you get the sommelier too. So that's a total of 16 lots of spiel. Any ideas you might have harboured about a quiet romantic dinner have been nuked by your forced entry into the Tower of Babel.

I have a good friend who, driven to despair by such a scenario, once decided to hide in the loo as he saw the next course coming. The waiter's idea of good service was to wait until he returned and give the explanation again. AAAARGH!

There are exceptions, but they're rare. A tasting menu on occasion is fine, but more often than not I'll opt for the place where I can have a couple of courses and a bottle of decent wine. To paraphrase the old Scots phrase, let chefs tak' tent (beware).


  1. Christopher Trotter on 2nd May 2024 at 8:28 am

    It’s not often I comment on your reviews, but I am moved to in this instance. I have to say I have been put off tasting menus since a bad experience at L’Enclume in 2007. We could barely understand what the waiters were saying, so strong was the French accent. But more recently a superb lunch at The Ledbury in London was the opposite, superb food and very little chat unless asked for. A memorable meal. You are right of course with the training, it still annoys me that in a half decent place when they are only serving two they STILL have to ask “who’s having the duck” Christ, can’t you write it down!! And worse still, in the Old Course Hotel, St Andrews “Have you had a good day, what have you been doing”! Now Americans may love that but …. And yes you are right I am sure Tasting or set menus save money. but any chef worth his salt can reimagine unused food. So, no tasting menus for me, thanks.

  2. Mark Baird on 2nd May 2024 at 11:21 am

    Not for me. Usually a rip off and a licence to print money.

  3. PMM on 5th May 2024 at 9:39 am

    Tom – I nodded in agreement all through your article – Peigi x

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