Typos a la carte, a specialty of the house

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 16, 2008

By Jane Black
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON ó Most people have a superhero fantasy. Some want superior strength, plus tights and a cape, to fight crime. Others imagine being able to fly, become invisible or see through walls.
Mine has always been tamer. No costume. No drama. In my fantasy, I enter a restaurant, order and sweetly ask the waiter if I can “hold on to the menu” during dinner. Then, using a distinctive purple pen, I discreetly copy-edit the descriptions of the dishes.
Caesar, not “caeser.” Shiitake, not “shitake.” Riesling, not “reisling” (though I’d quietly applaud restaurants that spell it wrong as long as the misspelling was consistent.)
“Who was that anonymous proofreader?” chefs would whisper to one another. Correct-a-girl strikes again! Eliminating menu mistakes, one restaurant at a time.
Given the state of the world, I know this fantasy is a bit of an embarrassment. Even in restaurants, there are far greater calamities than the occasional menu mistake. Skyrocketing food costs are squeezing already-slim margins. Soaring gas prices are keeping diners at home. And anyone watching the long-fought election campaign knows that it’s anything but fashionable to be an elitist.
Still, my fantasy was revived a few weeks ago after I had dinner at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Washington. As our party left the restaurant, we looked up to see an enormous banner that had recently been mounted above the door. It read: “HANK’SOYSTER BAR. Nominated for Best Neighborhood Restuarant.” When my friend politely pointed out the errors, the pleasant maitre d’ was appropriately horrified. (By the next day, the sign had been replaced.)
It got me wondering: How does that happen? Can restaurant folks not spell? Do they just not care? “Restaurant people are not writers. For a chef, doing a menu is like writing a term paper,” says Gregg Rapp, a California menu engineer for large restaurant chains.
I don’t expect chefs to be writers, just as they don’t expect me to make my own puff pastry. But given the existence of spell-checkers (the writing equivalent of frozen puff pastry dough), the number of errors is surprising.
I’m not talking about ethnic restaurants where the chef might not speak English, though the Chinese dish “vegetarian with tofu” I once spotted had a certain appeal. Nor would I pick on restaurants overseas, such as the one in Baghdad favored by foreign journalists that serves Chicken Gordon Blue.
What I’m talking about are the common, easily avoidable mistakes: “Deserts,” “marscapone” and “pizza’s.” In the past few weeks, I’ve seen “angnolotti” at Charlie Palmer Steak, “avocadoes” at Kinkead’s in D.C., “molton chocolate cake” at Washington’s Darlington House and a “carrot mouseline” at Belga Cafe. At Zola, they warn on the online menu that “consuming raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodbourne illness.” But my recent favorite remains the “mescaline salad served with satay grilled shrimp, cucumbers, tomatoes and avocado” at Yorktown Bistro in Arlington, Va.
Talk about your psychedelic flavor combinations.
(Full disclosure: Even “elitist” journalists also make mistakes. In July 2003, The Washington Post ran a story about an organic farmer growing “mescaline greens.” The correction became a copy desk cautionary tale. Nor am I personally immune, which may be why I like finding typos elsewhere. Most recently, a slip of the finger meant that I called Johnny Monis’s D.C. restaurant Komo, not Komi. Sorry, Johnny.)
Perhaps spell-checker programs offer a false sense of security. They don’t catch such mistakes as “sweep peppers,” available on the pizzas at Moroni & Brothers. Word-processing safeguards also sadly fail to help a menu writer understand when to use quotation marks, a punctuation symbol some chefs appear to love as much as crispy pork belly.
Take Assaggi Mozzarella Bar in Bethesda, Md., where the menu, at least as replicated on Zagat.com, translates one pappardelle dish as “large flat pasta with a `veal, pork and beef’ bolognese.” (Is it fake meat? Or not really all three?)
The auto-correct feature is a potentially dangerous line of defense. That mesclun/mescaline problem could be the computer’s, not the chef’s. One mistake I’ve never seen on a menu but would actually savor is the one I lived in fear of when I worked in Boston. Despite my attempts to stop it, my Microsoft Word program would always change the word for Italy’s famous cured meat into what it assumed I meant to type. The night we closed an issue, I would have nightmares that when the magazine hit the stands, one of my reviews would describe “the delicate sweet and salty balance of melon and prostitute.”
Well, at least it was consistent.
The number of menu mistakes is up for several reasons, says consultant Rapp. First, unlike in the old days, most small restaurants print the menu themselves, leaving the task of proofreading to an already-busy chef or manager, not to an English major.
At Vermilion in Alexandria, Va., for example, chef Tony Chittum is responsible for writing weekly menus. We found no errors on the ones we checked, though general manager Dave Hammond says he occasionally has noticed mistakes that he’s had to rush to change before service.
Take the dish that included V.A. ham. “I remember saying, `Hey, Tony, when did the Veterans Administration start making ham?’ ” Hammond jokes. “Tony has a good sense of humor, and overall he really does a good job of putting his ideas on paper.”
Second, the dish descriptions have become far more complicated and more global. Every spot in town now has navarins, gnudi or panna cotta, which lend themselves to creative spellings.
Finally, restaurants change their menus more often to bring in what’s local and seasonal, increasing the chance of introducing errors.
Rapp isn’t optimistic that spelling will improve; a shame, he says, because errors can hurt a restaurant’s credibility. Indeed, he says, the only way forward is for diners to point them out.
That’s not such an easy sell, even for Lynne Truss, author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” a book that only half-jokingly suggests that language lovers put a stop to apostrophe abuse by carrying with them “correction fluid, big pens, stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain (for sticking over unwanted apostrophes) and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed).”
“I’ll see a typo and I die inside, but I’ll never point it out,” Truss said in a telephone interview from London. “I feel embarrassed that it matters so much and lost about what to do.”
Jeff Deck lacked that British restraint on his 2 1/2-month journey around the country. As founder of the Typo Eradication Advancement League, the 28-year-old Bostonian tried to stamp out as many mistakes as he could find by pointing them out or offering to fix them himself.
Deck and his rotating cast of travel companions didn’t limit themselves to restaurants, but they did find a number of foodie offenders: “Bread puding” was a special at the Silver Diner in Rockville, Md., when he passed through. Pointing them out, though, was consistently painful. “Awkward was our trade,” Deck says.
Which is why there’s a real need for Correct-a-girl: always discreet, always anonymous, confident instead of awkward. In other words, nothing like me. But that’s what alter egos are for.