What if you eliminated the majority of your menu items, strictly limiting your customers’ choices for their meal, and people loved it? This is a reality for restaurants that center around prix fixe menus. An oft-forgotten little sibling to the fine-dining tasting menu, a prix fixe menu typically offers three courses at a much lower price. It might seem radical in a world that valorizes choice, but prix fixe menus are a big draw for budget-conscious customers and can even be the ticket to a streamlined restaurant operation if done right.
Hit Bay Area restaurant Trestle provides an excellent case study of a prix fixe’s potential. Founded in 2015 by San Francisco’s Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group, Trestle shuns à la carte menus altogether, offering customers a fixed three-course menu with a starter, a main course, and a dessert. Diners choose between two items for each course with the option to add on a pasta course for an extra $12. On most nights, Trestle’s kitchen only has to serve eight different dishes, not counting variations for dietary restrictions, which the restaurant is happy to accommodate.
For co-owner Ryan Cole, part of the inspiration for Trestle came from a prix fixe experience years ago at chef Alice Waters’ renowned Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. “The menu was simpler, the food was better, it was just a memorable meal,” said Cole. “It wasn't expensive, it was just simple, quality products, not a lot of things on a plate, and I loved it.”
It’s that simplicity that underpins Trestle’s approach—not only is the menu short and to-the-point, but it also features dishes that call for a short list of ingredients. Fewer ingredients means that they can take advantage of bulk pricing and purchase premium ingredients at an affordable price. Because their food costs are so low, they can afford to offer a high-quality meal for $39. The prix fixe menu was also a more practical option for Trestle because its tiny kitchen isn’t nearly big enough for a full à la carte menu.
Executed with flair, the minimalist menu was a winner from the start. A glowing write-up from SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer sealed the deal, and the restaurant’s business (doing up to three full seatings per evening) has never really slowed down. “It was the darling child because the food quality and service quality were so high, and the price point was so low,” said Cole.
Even if Trestle upgraded to a larger space, Cole said he wouldn’t change its approach, partly for branding reasons but also because he feels that more and more customers value a well-executed menu over one with multiple choices. “You don't see many restaurants coming out with Cheesecake Factory style menus anymore,” he said, noting that plenty of à la carte restaurants now also limit their menus to just four or five main dishes.
Dennis Gemberling, the restaurant consultant and president of a consultancy firm called Perry Group International, also highlighted the “package” nature of prix fixe as a bonus, allowing servers to sell more with minimal effort. “If they can already offer a prix fixe menu that's already been thought out and planned out by somebody else, they don't have to spend a whole lot of time upselling it,” he explained.
Cole would agree; Trestle’s ultra-straightforward menu makes servers’ work so routine that he likens it to a ballet — the restaurant fills up and empties at around the same times every day, so the staff knows precisely how the entire evening will unfold.
Cole advocates for a permanent prix fixe approach, but plenty of à la carte restaurants offer specialty prix fixe menus to boost turnover at quieter times. According to Gemberling, this approach dates back to the ‘70s when some restaurants would open early for dinner and offer a discount prix fixe aimed at older diners. “It was very appealing to the senior crowd because they're on fixed budgets, they eat early, they go to bed earlier,'' he explained. “It filled in [times], where we would be dead until 6:30 or 7:00 at night."
While the “senior happy hour” has faded in recent decades, the idea of luring customers on a budget at off-peak times might still be helpful. In Montreal, many reputable fine-dining spots offer late-night prix fixe menus that are only available to customers who are seated after 9 or 10 pm. That way, restaurants can juice value out of tables that would otherwise sit empty, which is especially helpful for large dining rooms that are difficult to fill up during off-peak hours.
Prix fixe menus can also come in handy during the holidays when you want to do something special but efficient. These kinds of prix fixe deals can appeal to a different crowd, but they can also offer cautious spenders a chance to sample a restaurant without splurging. If they like it, they might spread the word about the restaurant. “Maybe they won't be a regular customer, but they'll tell somebody else,” said Gemberling. He added that these customers might come back for other special occasions when they are willing to spend a bit more.
This prix fixe strategy isn’t just the domain of fancy restaurants. If done right, it can boost sales for casual haunts such as Bacchus’ Kitchen, a neighborhood go-to in Pasadena that offers a three-course prix fixe every Tuesday night for $35. Owner Claud Beltran said that it boosts sales on quieter nights when customers, looking to be cautious with their money, might only order a main course. “People know that it’s going to be $35 and it’s a known number, whereas, I think when you go out to dinner, and you just start ordering, and ordering and all of a sudden you get the bill and you’re like, Whoa, I didn’t think that was going to happen,” he said.
Beltran also picks out a budget-friendly wine to feature alongside each week’s prix fixe, another strategy that has paid off. “I don’t think anyone ever bats an eye at spending on a bottle of wine that’s less than an entree,” he said. This kind of off-peak prix fixe menu may require extra work, particularly when it comes to your marketing strategy: People can’t take advantage of a special deal if they don’t know it exists. The first step here would be to put it online. You can use the Wix Menu Builder tool to add the prix fixe deal to your restaurant website, then use some cool social media graphics to promote it with Instagram marketing, for example.
Affordable menu pricing isn’t the only thing Beltran uses to lure in diners; he creates a different menu every month according to themes such as Dim Sum or Holiday Cheer. Gemberling fondly recalled a dive bar’s prix fixe that centered around wild game. “Each week, there would be a different wild game,” he said. “It’s creating the buzz and the attraction but also getting your customer in at a higher price point.”
As long as you make each item interesting, a prix fixe menu is something that can work in almost any full-service restaurant. Naturally, though, there are trade-offs: at Trestle, prix fixe makes service so predictable that the restaurant can handle three services in one night. Although that sometimes requires Cole and his staff to be firm with customers about occupying tables for too long. “I'm sorry, but you did not earn the seat for two and a half hours,” he said. “There's going to be some constraints.”
Cole also notes that the prix fixe concept doesn’t work well for larger groups. “You’re always going to have somebody who's just difficult or doesn't want to participate,” he said. That being said, a high-quality menu will draw the more adventurous eaters who are more interested in the food than the scene. “It makes it more fun for you as the guest to have this broad range of people there instead of everybody looking like yourself.”
And that’s the key: Prix fixe might not please everybody, but if you can please most people, it can be a winner for customers and restaurateurs alike.