It ain't just kitchen slang. 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-occasionally a lamb wine pairing-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. Additionally, we give you 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 contrasts it with fixed menus like the table d hote menu and the prix fixe menu.
More Expensive Dishes
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. Knowing how to price a menu is key to profitability.
A La Carte Menu Card
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.
What Are Common A La Carte Dishes?
What dishes are 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 a dish a la carte is that it’s served individually—separate from the full menu.
But here's 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 food menu engineering.
For this example, we’ll be envisioning an American-style steakhouse that’s open for breakfast (these items also answer the question of "What is brunch food?").
4 Common Breakfast A La Carte Dishes
An omelet a la carte, for example, would just be the omelet. No slices of fruit, no pancakes, no hash browns. Get it? Let’s look at a lunch version.
4 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?
4 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.
Are There 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. It 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.
What Is the Standard A La Carte Table Cover?
All sorts of restaurants have a la carte menus, from fast-casual spots to luxurious white tablecloth fine dining establishments. This section is mostly concerned with the latter.
The a la carte table setting is simply how each guest’s place at the table 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.
Here are 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.
Digital A La Carte Menus
A great way to digitize an a la carte menu is using a QR code. All you have to do is have a menu, either a PDF document or a published HTML website. Then you'll link the QR code to the PDF or a URL. There are some QR code security issues if you use a free online service for this, beware.
Then situate your new QR code in a QR code template for easy scanning and place it around your restaurant. It may also help to have material visible about how to scan QR codes on Androids and iPhones along with troubleshooting any issues around QR code scanning problems.
Aside from menus, a QR code is used for so many other things. QR code marketing, for example.
The Next Level A La Carte Menu
No matter the types of menu your business uses, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that custom QR code menus are the future of the industry. Various menus that are QR code-based, for example, are more hygienic and one of the best ways to increase restaurant sales. It even works for your wine food pairing menu (see more on wine pairing with salmon and turkey wine pairing ideas).
4 Reasons Why Digital Menus Are the Future
- Digital menus save businesses loads of time and money.
- More accessible to consumers who search for information electronically.
- The right partnership with a tech company gets you an ADA-compliant digital menu right when you start.
- 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.
Frequently Asked Questions About A La Carte Menus
What Is an A La Carte Menu?
An A La Carte Menu refers to the situation when a guest orders one type of dish that's separate from a plate of an original menu. The meaning of the term is to go opposite of the menu. It came into English in the 1830s and is the opposite of Table d'Hote, which means according to the menu.
What are the Characteristics of an A La Carte Menu?
Five common characteristics of an A La Carte Menu include:
- An extensive choice of dishes within each course or category.
- Each dish is priced separately and includes a description.
- Dishes are cooked as per order but might be partially prepared in advance.
- Each dish has a waiting time.
- Customers are billed according to the order they place.
What Items are Normally Set Up for A La Carte Dining?
Place settings are called covers (French="couverts"). The cover includes the place for each guest, including tableware, cutlery, glassware, crockery, and napkin.
How Is A La Carte Different From Buffet?
A la carte is a type of service where each item on the menu is ordered and served separately, while a buffet is a type of meal where food is placed in a public area and diners serve themselves. A la carte is usually a plated, sit-down meal, while a buffet can be either sit-down or stand-up. In addition, buffets often have a wider variety of food items than a la carte menus.