À la carte is the practice of allowing customers to order individual items from a menu. This can be contrasted with table d'hôte that offers no choice or limited choices with a set menu that typically includes multiple courses. The following are common types of menu related to à la carte.
Traditional Menus Traditionally, restaurants in many cultures offered meals as opposed to individual menu items. Such meals typically include a few constrained choices and no option of customization or substitution. This was done because the process of preparing food was labour intensive such that restaurants didn't have the capacity to deal with hundreds of unique orders. The practice of offering complete meals as opposed to a flexible menu is known as table d'hôte, prix fixe, fixed price or set menu. Many cultures have some local variation of this practice such as a Japanese teishoku that typically includes rice or bread, soup, small sides, a main course and occasionally a dessert.
Modern MenusÀ la carte has become such a common practice that this is the default type of menu in many countries. A set menu may still be offered as a daily special. In some cases, American menus use the term à la carte for sides even where the entire menu is technically à la carte.
Price DiscriminationA separate à la carte menu may be offered at restaurants that mostly offer a set menu. In this case, the à la carte is typically relatively expensive because the set menu benefits from economies of scale. As à la carte menus were historically common, they are often viewed as traditional. As such, restaurants may use a separate à la carte menu as a method of premiumization to implement price discrimination whereby price sensitive customers stick to the set menu and price insensitive customers order as they like.
Choice ArchitectureThe term à la carte is often used for any choice architecture that allows customers to choose individual products and services. For example, cable television packages are often offered in "bundles" such that customers must order channels they don't want in order to get the channels they do want. In this context, an à la carte option allows for the selection of individual channels, often at a relatively high price.
EtymologyFrench, literally "by the card." First referenced in Joseph Sherer's "Notes and Reflections During a Ramble in Germany", 1826.
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