Remaking a menu can be a daunting task for chefs, who walk the line between staying on trend and satisfying customer loyalty to favorites
When Tucci’s reopened three weeks after closing for renovations this spring, lines of hungry customers eager for the debut of the new-and-improved neighborhood favorite filed in. As the doors opened, revealing not only redesigned dining and bar areas—featuring modern decor, raised booths and sleek partitions—but a totally revamped menu, chef Wil Novak says guests were blown away.
“The energy level was through the roof,” says Novak, corporate chef for Tucci’s owner CLB Restaurants. Novak spearheaded the menu redevelopment, which removed pizzas and most pastas that had historically dominated the menu and added more seafood and steak, including new a la carte options for several cuts of meat, toppings and sides.
Feedback has been positive since the redesign, he says, with the exception of regular customers who long for discontinued dishes.
“Whenever you change a menu you have to be very cautious of what you do take off,” Novak says. It wasn’t long after the reopening that a much-demanded chicken and angel hair pasta dish returned.
The chefs at Hubbard Grille in the Short North have experienced similar pushback during menu shifts. When two popular small plates—chorizo and shrimp bruschetta and Prince Edward Isle mussels—were stripped from the menu a year ago, customers complained in the restaurant and on social media. So Josh Cook, executive corporate chef for Taste Hospitality Group, brought both back.
He says chefs tend to keep staple dishes on the menu because “those are things you’re afraid to take off.” But, that said, Cook is not afraid to experiment, and looks to trends for new ideas.
A sandwich scene that is growing increasingly adventurous inspired his rosemary ham and brie on ciabatta with spiced walnuts and granny smith apples. Seasonal produce and flavors also steer new dishes, such as his autumnal fig and Gorgonzola sacchetti with roasted shallot and walnut cream.
In Tucci’s case, the menu change coincided with an updated interior. Hubbard Grille’s menu changes a few times each year to keep customers excited about food.
When changing their menu once or twice a year, the owners of French restaurant La Chatelaine keep regular customers top-of-mind, says Ashley Greathouse, manager at the Lane Avenue location.
Some dishes resurface annually with a twist. The scallop and shrimp etouffee from last winter’s menu is featured again but served with a garlic cream sauce rather than a tomato sauce.
But Greathouse says they have menu items, such as the beef bourguignon and chicken vol au vent, that they won’t ever change. “We have our traditional stuff and then we kind of change everything else around that,” she adds.
Sometimes, a menu needs a total overhaul. Months without a head chef at Latitude 41 in Downtown’s Renaissance Hotel and a resulting stagnant menu called for new executive chef Michael Koenig “to breathe new life into it,” he says. Since joining this summer he’s changed nearly everything on the menu except a few house favorites, including the lobster truffle mac and cheese, and he continues to change the dinner menu a few times each week. Koenig maintains focus on featuring Ohio ingredients in most dishes, such as a new Bluescreek lamb BLT, and keeps his clientele in mind.
“I don’t want to do stuff they haven’t seen because people aren’t going to buy it,” he says. “We’re an American farm-to-table restaurant with wholesome, good food. People don’t want to see foam or manipulated, really high garnishes. They want steak and potatoes.”