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Understanding Restaurant and Menu Terms - 50 Explained

Updated on September 6, 2012

You're lucky enough to be at a fine restaurant; maybe you are with your boss, perhaps you are trying to impress on a first date or are pushing the boat out with the in-laws.

Ok, so you're not out of your depth like Julia Roberts in the restaurant scene in Pretty Woman, but when you're presented with the menu, you won't want to admit that you don't understand half of the terms on there, or want to ask the waiter a load of questions. What follows is a quick guide and jargon buster of some of the things that can mystify. I hope you find this useful as opposed to patronising!

Depending on region, some of these terms may be very familiar or totally unfamiliar. There are so many variations from country to country, village to village and even restaurant to restaurant in the same village that it is impossible to give a definitive definition.

Before even looking at the food

First things first, you'll probably be welcomed by the maître d’ (in full maître d'hôtel), who is essentially the 'front of house' and manages the waiting staff. They can range from wonderfully helpful and pleasant to slightly snooty.

Next up you'll probably be asked if you want an aperitif. Though fashions for types of aperitifs change, what remains the same is that it is an alcoholic drink intended to stimulate the appetite. Classic choices include: Champagne, vermouth, Campari, Kir (crème de cassis - aka blackcurrant liqueur - topped up with white wine), Kir Royale (as before but using Champagne instead of white wine) and dry sherry. It is usually accompanied by humble nibbles such as nuts, olives and crisps but also in better establishments more substantial canapés such as savoury pastries, bruschetta (Italian toasted bread rubbed with garlic, - and in its most classic form - drizzled with olive oil and topped with chopped tomatoes and herbs), cold meats or even small pieces of frittata.

You'll probably have to select which type of menu you're going for. Below, some of the main variations are ordered by ascending price.

A Set lunch/menu in the best establishments is going to be the cheapest option. There will be very limited choices, and when I say cheap, somewhere like Gordon Ramsay's will still set you back £45 a head for three courses.

A La Carte, literally translated from the French means 'according to the card'. Each dish will be listed separately and individually priced.

Menu Prestige/Tasting menu - a tasting menu offers a number (quite often six) of smaller courses at a fixed price. In nearly all restaurants, a tasting menu must be selected by the whole table. Sometimes there is a special seasonal tasting menu or a tasting menu that surpasses the 'standard' tasting menu. Again, the price will be higher.

You might also be asked if you want to pair your food. This means matching a type of wine to a particular food with the aim of enhancing the flavours. Usually the sommelier - the person who is responsible for the selection of and serving of the wines - will select a different wine to complement each course, or give a couple of options for each course. The menu should indicate the cost of this per person so you don't get any nasty surprises. To help get you get a head start, this site is useful:

Food and Wine Pairing

Seafood 'en Papillote'.
Seafood 'en Papillote'.

Terms and definitions

Amuse bouche - a bite-sized offering that is provided free of charge at the beginning of a meal.

Blue - Steak cooked less than very rare; has a cold raw centre and is just seared (for about 10 seconds) on both sides.

Bouillon - A broth of celery, onions and carrots (mirepoix); herbs, vegetables and veal, beef or chicken bones.

Cannon - The eye of the loin with all the fat removed. It's the leanest and tenderest cut of lamb or venison.

Carpaccio - originally this referred to a dish of thinly sliced raw beef dressed with a mustard sauce, which is thought to have been invented at Harry's Bar in Venice. The term carpaccio has now been broadened and can refer to anything that is sliced very thinly including fish and vegetables.

Ceviche - A South American dish of raw fish or seafood marinated in a citrus juice, with salt and chillies.

Chateaubriand - various definitions exist, but generally considered to be a thick cut from the tenderloin. Usually served for two people.

Compote - fruit stewed in a syrup, usually served as a dessert.

Confit - Meat that has been slowly cooked in its own fat; most commonly duck.

Consommé - A clarified broth ie it has no food particles in it.

Coulis - A thick, smooth sauce of fruit or vegetables that have been pureed and sieved. Extremely popular in the late 80s.

Digestif - An alcoholic drink served after a meal to aid digestion. Common examples include: brandy, armagnac, cognac, limoncello, whisky and grappa.

En Papillote (Italian: Al cartoccio) - A method of cooking where food is baked inside a sealed pouch of greaseproof paper, which means the food is steamed in its own juices.

Entrecôte - A premium cut of beef that comes from the rib area of the animal.

Filet mignon - A cut of beef taken from the smaller end of the tenderloin. It is very tender.

Florentine steak - A top quality T-bone steak taken from a Chianina calf and hung for 5-6 days. It is grilled over a charcoal fire and seasoned with just salt. Olive oil is added strictly after the meat comes off the fire. It is thick cut, big and usually rare.

Flambé - A way of cooking where alcohol - such as brandy or cognac - is added to a hot pan and ignited to create a burst of flames. Steaks, bananas and pancakes all lend themselves to this cooking technique.

Foie gras - The specially fattened liver of a goose or duck. Foie gras can be served as a mousse, parfait or pâté and can be pan-seared.

Fricassée - Most commonly chicken or poultry, but also veal; the meat is cut into pieces, dusted in flour, sautéed in butter or oil and then cooked with vegetables in stock often including wine. Again, there are many variations. A fricassee is lighter than a stew.

Fusion - A real buzz word in restaurants. Essentially a dish which combines techniques or ingredients from two or more regional cuisines.

Ganache - A sauce/icing made from chocolate and cream.

Gremolata - An Italian garnish of raw, finely chopped garlic, parsley and lemon zest. There are quite a few variations/additions, but lemon zest is a constant. It is usually sprinkled over slow-cooked braised meats, such as osso bucco (see below), but also works well with grilled fish or chicken.

A julienne of vegetables
A julienne of vegetables
A slow braised lamb shank
A slow braised lamb shank

Julienne - This is French term for a method of cutting vegetables into thin strips/matchsticks.

Jus (Au jus) - Usually refers to roasted meat that's served in it's own juices. It is similar to gravy in the way that it uses pan-drippings and uses stock to de-glaze the pan, but is differentiated by the fact that it is un-thickened.

Millefeuille - Literally meaning 1000 leaves, in a cooking context refers to rectangular slices of puff pastry layered with pastry cream.

Noisette butter (Beurre noisette) - Unsalted butter that has been lightly browned (NOT burned!).

Osso bucco - A speciality from Milan, which literally translated means bone with a hole, this is a thick cut (about an inch and a half) veal shank. When cooked the marrow in the centre melts into the sauce leaving a hole in the middle; hence the name. It is usually braised with vegetables and one of the traditional accompaniments is risotto alla milanese. It is often garnished with Gremolata.

Parfait - Parfaits can be sweet or savoury and there are many varieties. In the traditional French sense they are smooth and involve a layering of ingredients. A sweet parfait in France tends to be a frozen dessert that consists of egg, whipped cream, sugar and flavouring, which is in a mould and can be sliced. An 'American parfait' resembles more of a sundae with layers of ice cream, syrup, cream and fruit. Common savoury parfaits include duck and rabbit liver.

Pavé - Actually meaning 'cobblestone', this term refers to a square (or rectangular) shaped - sweet or savoury - serving of food.

Petit fours - small cakes and biscuits served with coffee.

Provencale (a la) - a dish which includes garlic, tomatoes and olive oil and sometimes black olives.

Reduction - the process of thickening and intensifying the flavour of a liquid by rapidly boiling. It can be a stock, wine, cream or vinegar reduction; to name but a few.

Rémoulade - A mayonnaise-based sauce often flavoured with herbs, mustard and capers. Again there are thousands of variations!

Rouille - A sauce made usingolive oil with breadcrumbs, garlic, egg yolks, saffron, cayenne pepper and chillies. Goes great with fish dishes and fish soups. I sound like a broken record here, but - you guessed it - there are many, many variations.

Sauce Vierge - This 'Virgin sauce' is made using olive oil, lemon juice and chopped tomatoes and basil.

Semifreddo - Literally translated from the Italian it means "half cold" and in culinarily terms refers to chilled or partially frozen desserts such as cake, ice cream and fruit and custard.

Shank - A cut of meat from the leg of a calf, sheep or lamb.

Sweetbreads - Often mistaken for being animal testicles, these are in factthe thymus gland (which is from the throat) and the pancreas gland (which is from the heart or stomach) of calves or lambs.

Tartare - A dish made from finely chopped raw meat or fish, such as steak, venison, tuna or salmon.

Tempura - The Japanese name for vegetables or fish deep fried in a light batter.

Terrine - A terrine is an earthenware dish with a lid in which food is cooked. When on a menu this refers to what has actually been cooked inside. A terrine is very similar to a pâté except that the latter is baked in a crust.

Velouté - A white sauce which is made from a 'white stock', such as chicken or seafood stock and a roux (flour and butter). Cream and seasoning is added once the velouté is ready to serve.

A final word...

This is only the tip of the iceberg, please feel free to add your own terms below and share some of your dining experiences and variations from around the world.


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    • profile image

      Les Saville 

      2 years ago

      I am what they call "A Plain Jane Person" and yes I do get embarrassed about asking what is this on the menu. Once I get to know e.g. it's only Steak & Fish served with side salad, then next time I will order by menu name and feel comfortable.

      I am a Toastmaster and delivering a speech about fine dinning terms. compared what the food is in layman terms.

      This site is extremely user friendly. Thank you for the opportunity to share a fazed moment to a Plain Jane like me.

    • Francescad profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from London

      Hopefully so. Very easy for a lot of people to be fazed by terminology and be made to feel embarrassed. Many more could be added!

    • CYong74 profile image


      4 years ago from Singapore

      This is quite a list you have there. One that would save a lot of people some embarrassment.

    • profile image

      Chef Steve 

      5 years ago

      Your list is very informative but as you said its just the tip, i have hundreds i could help you add if you wanted a more complete list... cheers!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      i wnt to travel around the word to taste and eat diffent food

    • Francescad profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from London

      Thanks!! :-)

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      7 years ago from USA

      I think you've got it covered quite well, Francescad. I am so impressed. I had to share it.

    • Francescad profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from London

      Hi MarleneB,

      Really glad you found it helpful. Do let me know if there are any other terms you'd like me to add.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      7 years ago from USA

      This is quite helpful. It is really going to enhance my enjoyment of cooking shows that use a lot of these terms, as well.

    • Francescad profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from London

      Thanks FullOfLoveSites!

    • FullOfLoveSites profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      Nice list of menu terminology. The French are really superiors in cooking, it seems! Good job in writing your hub. :)

    • Francescad profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from London

      I think a lot of people feel the same! Glad you thought it was helpful.

    • internpete profile image

      Peter V 

      7 years ago from At the Beach in Florida

      Very helpful! I sometimes hesitate to ask questions about the menu if I think it is a dumb question, so this provides some useful info!

    • Francescad profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from London

      Good point, this can get sneaked on, which is particularly bad if the service has been poor. Also there's 'cover charge' in certain places.

    • profile image

      Jean Collom 

      7 years ago

      Just thought I would mention the 12 and a half per cent service charge restaurants add to their bills. This is supposed to be a "tip" for good service but having experienced a bad service on the other side of the Olympic Park yesterday we did not want to give a tip. I hasten to add that it was in the shopping complex near John Lewis.

      Read the bottom of your menus to see in small print whether or not the restaurant will add this straight onto your bill.

      I noticed it when it came to paying and told them to take it straight off again. We saved about £10 doing this.


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