The meaning of a la carte comes down to us through French. In the 19th century, English speakers adopted the phrase to refer to a certain type of menu item and it stuck. Another word for a la carte is according to the menu or by the menu.
So what is this mysterious menu item, and why does it pop up in so many high-end restaurants?
In this post we’ll first look at the meaning of a la carte. Then we’ll dive a bit deeper. We’ll look into some popular a la carte menu items, what an a la carte table cover looks like, and a la carte menus themselves.
There’s even a free downloadable a la carte menu template if you’re designing your own. Along with an example of what a complete a la carte menu would look like.
What Does A La Carte Mean?
When a dish at a restaurant is offered a la carte, it means the dish is ordered individually. It is not a part of a larger meal or a course of dishes. If you order a steak a la carte, you get a steak and just a steak. There may be garnishes or sauces with it. Some guests may choose to order a side dish with their a la carte steak. But they’d be ordering that side dish a la carte, too.
That’s because the defining characteristic of an a la carte menu item is that it’s served differently—separately—from the way the dish is offered on the restaurant’s full menu. This puts it at opposition with fixed menus like the table d’hote menu and the prix fixe menu. To adequately define a la carte it’s helpful to see it in contrast to other menu types.
Another defining feature of the a la carte menu is that it’s priced differently than the rest of the menu. A la carte dishes tend to be a bit pricier, ounce-for-ounce, compared to their regular menu counterparts. That’s primarily because the restaurant isn’t selling you numerous side dishes with your entree. Side dishes that tend to have higher margins. So they’ll raise the price of the a la carte menu item to make up for it.
A menu made up of numerous a la carte dishes is called an a la carte menu. It’s also sometimes referred to as an a la carte menu card. It can be a paper menu or a digital menu like a QR code menu.
And if you’re ordering your meal solely from the a la carte menu card, a la carte service doesn’t necessarily differ from the service anyone else gets. The only difference is that you’ll likely have to coordinate with your server when you want each a la carte dish to hit the table. If you want that a la carte side of sauteed spinach to come out with everyone else’s appetizers, make it known.
Common A La Carte Dishes
What’s on a restaurant’s a la carte menu depends entirely on the type of cuisine the restaurant serves. There isn’t a certain type of dish that is more inherently a la carte than any other. Again, what makes an a la carte dish an a la carte dish is that it’s served individually—separate from the full menu.
But here is a list of a la carte dishes that tend to show up on a la carte menus. This should give you a decent idea of just what types of menu items are typically served as a la carte dishes. What will show up on yours is typically what's most popular on its own—a data point important to menu engineering.
For this example, we’ll be envisioning an American-style steakhouse that’s open for breakfast.
Common Breakfast A La Carte Dishes
An omelette a la carte, for example, would just be the omelette. No slices of fruit, no pancakes, no hash browns. Get it? Let’s look at a lunch version.
Common Lunch A La Carte Dishes
Looks like a regular menu, doesn’t it? That’s because the type of item on an a la carte menu isn’t fundamentally different from what’s on the regular menu. It’s just sold individually.
How about dinner?
Dinner A La Carte Dishes
- Crab cakes
- Short ribs
Here, imagine ordering a steak and just getting a steak. Like in our previous example. Maybe it comes with a garnish. But it’s typically just the steak.
A La Carte Beverages?
Good question! Often the beverage part of a menu is considered a la carte, given that drinks are ordered separately. A beverage menu is inherently a la carte in that sense. They can be any type of beverage menu, too. From a wine list to a cocktail menu. And they can be presented digitally, too, depending on the restaurant technology used.
We know what a la carte menus look like. Now let's look at what a table should look like when a la carte menu cards are being served.
Standard A La Carte Table Cover
All sorts of restaurants have a la carte menus, from fast-casual spots to epic, white tablecloth fine dining establishments. This section is mostly concerned with the latter.
The a la carte table setting definition is simply how each guest’s place setting is set when an a la carte menu is being served.
So here’s how to do it. This usually applies when the entire party is ordering off the a la carte menu. And that tends to be a more common dining experience in Europe than it is in the U.S.
The five steps to creating an a la carte table cover:
- Place the base plate in the center of the cover position
- Place the fish knife and fork around the base plate
- Place the side plate about 5-6” to the left of the base plate and place the side knife on top, on the right, facing left
- Set a napkin in the center of the base plate
- Position a glass up about 2-3” and to the right about 2-3” from the tip of the fish fork
Voilà, you’ve got your a la carte setting.
A La Carte Menu Sample
To put it all together for you, here’s an example of an a la carte sample menu we put together for a fictional restaurant, Le Sanglier Brûlant.
A La Carte Menu Template
If you run a business, you’re probably coming up with your own a la carte menu ideas at this point. That’s why we’ve got this cool (and free) downloadable a la carte menu template PDF file. With your new expert knowledge on a la carte menus, you can download it and use it to create your own a la carte menu.
The Next Level A La Carte Menu
No matter the types of menu your business uses, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that digital menu options are the future of the industry. Digital wine lists, for example, are more hygienic and proven to increase sales.
First, digital menu solutions save businesses loads of time and money. Second, they’re much more accessible to a consumer base used to consuming information electronically. And finally, they’re far more hygienic than their paper counterparts.
What’s more, any menu can be digitized. Table d’hote, fixed menus, happy hour menus, a la carte menus, static menus, you name it. Every single menu out there can be made cleaner, safer, and more convenient.