When it comes to restaurant menus, sometimes simpler is better. andresr/Getty Images
I've Always Wondered ...

Why do tables only get one drink menu?

Janet Nguyen Mar 15, 2024
When it comes to restaurant menus, sometimes simpler is better. andresr/Getty Images

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

A listener who wanted to keep their name anonymous asks: 

Why do restaurants give everyone at a table their own food menu, but only provide one drinks list?

As any host or waiter knows, serving customers at a restaurant is a complex job, and even the distribution of menus requires thoughtful consideration. 

Pasjoli, a restaurant in Santa Monica, California, has beverages sold by the glass printed on the back of its food menu, and each guest receives their own menu, explained Ann Hsing, a partner at the establishment. 

But the restaurant has a separate list of wines you can buy by the bottle, and each table will only get one of those menus, Hsing said. 

“Everyone goes to a restaurant to eat food. But not everyone’s going to drink,” Hsing explained. 

The restaurant Birdie G’s in Santa Monica follows the same practice, and that wine bottle list is geared more toward those who are “wine lovers,” said general manager Keely Obbards.

And sometimes it’s just easier to have the wine aficionado at your table make all the decisions. That’s how things work when Taylor Falco, the chef de cuisine at the restaurant Rolo’s in New York City, goes out dining with his pals. 

“Someone is usually more experienced and confident in the kinds of wine they want to drink and I’m happy if they want to take the lead on that (as I usually do the same with food),” Falco said over email. 

All the restaurants we spoke to pointed out that multiple menus or long menu lists can overwhelm guests. Some restaurants even have wine and spirit inventories that can number in the thousands, Falco said. 

“For sake of ease at the table, not handing out multiple extensive binders to each guest makes for a much more pleasant experience,” Falco said.

Obbards pointed out it’s also beneficial to the hosts. 

“More things to give out at a table means more time spent at the table and less time to seat people. This can be detrimental to the flow of service,” Obbards said. 

When restaurants think about their menu design, they have to consider the costs that go into producing these lists. Having separate menus can help them save on costs. 

“If you have a menu with both food and drinks on it, and you end up having a wine that is no longer in stock, you have to reprint a menu you wouldn’t otherwise have had to reprint. And vice versa if your food menu changes frequently,” Obbards said. 

She noted that on a yearly basis, some restaurants can spend thousands of dollars on printing menus, with some using paper that costs more than $90 for fewer than 100 sheets. 

“If you laminate menus, that price goes up exponentially. Since the pandemic, sourcing for paper has been very difficult,” she said. 

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