You may not be familiar with the term “prix fixe menu,” but you’re more than likely familiar with the concept, which has been a staple of both fine-dining and casual restaurants for decades.
Prix Fixe Meaning
In classical restaurant parlance, prix fixe, French for “fixed price,” refers to a multiple-course meal that comes with—you guessed it—a set price.
It’s a mode of dining that lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from “a la carte,” which gives diners the option of selecting from among a number of single items, each of which has its own individual price. With a prix fixe menu, the food and the final cost are both decided from the outset, leaving you with nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the journey.
In some cases, the guest is given the freedom to pick and choose what they receive for each course (this ordering system is sometimes known as “table d’hote”). More frequently, it’s left to the discretion of the house. Either way, customers are guaranteed a dining experience that’s as memorable as it is delicious.
The History of the Prix Fixe Menu
The prix fixe menu in its earliest form was the brainchild of culinary innovator Auguste Escoffier, who was known in his native France as “roi des cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois”—“the king of chefs and the chef of kings.” The idea was to make things easier on both the kitchen staff and customers, particularly foreign patrons who didn’t possess a firm grasp of French.
Dividing the menu up into predetermined phases allowed the former to concentrate on cranking out high volumes of a few core dishes rather than trying to keep up with an endless stream of many different orders all at once; it enabled the latter to effortlessly order a complete meal, from appetizer to dessert, without stumbling over tricky pronunciations.
For both of these reasons, the prix fixe menu is still alive and well today. And it isn’t the exclusive province of upscale eateries, either. Many popular chain restaurants regularly run specials that give customers their choice of a certain number of appetizers, entrees, and desserts, sometimes for more than one person and usually at a price that’s quite affordable.
No matter what name it may take, it’s safe to assume that the prix fixe menu is here to stay.
The Advantages of Prix Fixe Menus
The prix fixe menu may owe its birth to the practical necessities of restaurants in 18-century France, but it still presents many advantages to restaurateurs savvy enough to get on board with the simplistic format.
As mentioned, fixed-price menus reduce the number and combination of available items to lighten the kitchen’s load and make ordering a proverbial piece of cake. But they also come with a host of other benefits, not all of which are purely operational.
For one, they give chefs an opportunity to think outside the a la carte box and flex their creativity in building comprehensive meals that reflect their unique strengths. This ultimately makes for a more intimate and rewarding relationship between the preparer and the eater. It can also do wonders for the morale of chefs and cooks bored with the tedium of mechanically readying made-to-order items at random.
Similarly, they relieve diners of the burden of choice and invite them to be open to the inherent joys of encountering the new and the unexpected.
Most of the fun of prix fixe offerings lies in not deciding (or sometimes even knowing) what you’re going to get. As such, they represent a harmonious marriage of culinary theory, gastronomy, and the basic animal need for sustenance that can be exceptionally gratifying when carried out well.
Another somewhat paradoxical feature of prix fixe menus is their predictable, systematic nature. These traits can be a boon to the front-of-house staff, who don’t have to worry so much about calculating the timing of different individual meals. Since each course can be cooked in small batches, servers know that all of their guests will receive fresh, impeccably made food at the same time.
Putting Together a Prix Fixe Menu for Your Restaurant
If you’re thinking about introducing fixed-price dining at your establishment, you might be surprised by how open-ended your options are. Give the following strategies some thought as you develop your inaugural prix fixe menu.
Prix Fixe or Bust
If you’re sufficiently amped over the notion of carefully curated meals, perhaps the simplest approach is to create a menu consisting solely of fixed-price options. It’s not uncommon to find such menus at fine dining restaurants, especially those run by acclaimed chefs.
The one caveat of prix fixe-only menus is that coming up with a good one requires a thorough understanding of the dynamics between various flavors, foods, and styles of cuisine, both in concept and execution. Artlessly designed meals are unlikely to prompt repeat patronage or pique the interest of prospective customers.
Prix Fixe + a la Carte
Not ready to go all-in on prix fixe? Offer a few a la carte items alongside one or more fixed-price meals. For example, you might make two separate three-course and four-course options at the heart of your menu, then provide a list of side orders that diners can request to add a little something extra to their repast.
This best-of-both-worlds philosophy allows for a degree of customization, letting guests take part in the meal-building process and play a more active role in determining what sort of dining experience they wish to have.
Quick and Easy Combination Lunches
Instead of devoting the bulk of your menu to prix fixe meals, give them their own separate menu or insert and reserve them for the pre-dinner hours.
Prix fixe and table d’hote meals are ideal for the lunch rush when many diners are in a hurry to get back to their busy days and don’t have the luxury of taking their time. Here again, we see the order-expediting principle in action in a way that makes sense and doesn’t infringe on your main menu.
As a bonus, adding exclusive items or deals to your lunch menu can also be an effective way to boost slumping midday sales.
Fixed-Price Meal Specials
If you’re just looking to dip your toes in the water, one last method is to experiment with limited-time fixed-price promotional menus on high-dollar holidays and other special occasions such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve, or Easter.
Visit any major national chain restaurant on any of the aforementioned dates and you’re likely to find a small selection of two-to-three course value meals for individual diners or couples. This is another common application of prix fixe because it brings in customers and lets restaurateurs offer something new by simply reconfiguring some of the more in-demand items on their everyday menus.
Tips for Building a Prix Fixe Menu
Regardless of your menu’s exact structure, there are few basic guidelines you can follow to help ensure that it will prove a hit with your guests without putting undue strain on your kitchen.
There’s a lot to be said for sticking to your strengths, but don’t be afraid to drift afield of the ordinary. Prix fixe menus are by nature organic and ever-changing and are therefore a prime place to test out new techniques, pairings, and inventions.
If something doesn’t work, learn from the mistake and move along. The most important thing is to keep your creative faculties well-honed.
Explore Unifying Themes
At a loss for where to begin? Start by assigning each meal a motif. You’ll then have a much clearer direction for each course.
For instance, one week’s special might revolve around seasonal meats and produce; another could put an unexpected spin on the classic surf-and-turf duo; a third might showcase a novel form of fusion. You can even reuse broader themes with new dishes and components down the line to amass a nearly infinite pool of meal-planning resources.
Try Not To Go Overboard
While it can be tempting to cram as much as possible into each meal, doing so will result in more work for the kitchen and overwhelm diners with more complexity than their palettes can process. You don’t need to pour the entire spice rack into one sauce or use twenty ingredients in a single course. Remember, less is often more.
Include Expert Pairing Suggestions
To take all remaining pressure off your guests, consider accompanying each of your listed meal options with a recommended beer, wine, or liquor. That way, they won’t be forced to deliberate about which type of alcohol will best complement which foods. They can simply eat, drink, and be merry, which in the end is what it’s all about.
Leave Room for Substitutions
Not everyone will be willing—or able—to devour everything you put on their plate. Picky eaters, food allergies, and dietary restrictions are unavoidable, so you might as well do your best to accommodate them while also staying true to your original vision for your fixed-price fare.