When the lights go down

Why are menus so hard to read?
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Now that our winter festivals have ended, taking their candle-lighting rituals with them, we are left with winter's deep and early darkness. We are left with it even in restaurants, many of which seem to be increasingly dim and shadowy, and how are you supposed to read a menu in such brown-out conditions? If you're lucky, your table is set with a votive candle, which you can pass back and forth, like boys in a tree house sharing a flashlight to ogle purloined porn. If you're luckier, someone in your party might have one of those little Sharper Image squeeze lights that attach to key chains.

If you're not lucky at all, you just squint and struggle in the gloom and wonder why a restaurant with a mood-lighting fetish would also choose to print its menu in black ink on crimson paper or in gold ink on taupe paper. These sorts of combinations might look very handsome and arty in daylight or under ordinary room lighting, but for some of us they become unreadable when the lights go down. Are restaurant staff testing these objects in battle conditions? If so, the testers must be people in their 20s, people whose rods and cones are still working at peak efficiency. We higher-mileage models can tell you, though, that at some point well before dementia and having your driver's license revoked, you will find that seeing in dim light has become a challenge undreamed of in your barfly days.

How about menu cards printed in big letters in black ink on plain white paper? If it matters, the paper can have a nice texture or maybe some beautiful border design. The font can even be striking and fancy (though not too much, please!) Such a menu card might turn out to look like an overachiever's résumé, but at least it will be readable — a key consideration for the people who hope to order from it.

Erratum: a reader wrote to point out that my recent piece about the Portuguese soup caldo verde ("Hot Green," 1/24/07) bungled the translation. "Caldo" means "soup" or "broth" — ergo, "caldo verde" means "green soup." The Latin root "cal" does mean "heat," though, and from it we take our words "cauldron" (for the making of green and other soups) and "calorie," counters of which will find much to appreciate in caldo verde.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com