Would mistakes on "ethnic" restaurant menus make you turn away?

There’s a line in Jim Leff’s Eat Everywhere app about avoiding Spanish restaurants that use the word “papa” instead of “patata” because papa is not the peninsular Spanish term for potato. The idea being that people from latin-america can’t own or operate legit Spanish restaurants because they aren’t from Spain.

There’s a whole debate to be had about the concept of authenticity, but let’s leave that for another thread.

I was looking at the menu for a recently opened Spanish restaurant in Ottawa and wondered about the wording of menus and their impact on perceived quality of the restaurant. The menu I was looking at was full of Spanish language mistakes, dishes with the wrong name or names that make no sense in Spanish, and the some random Italian mixed into the Spanish for no apparent reason. To me, mistakes like that reflect a lack of knowledge of the food they’re serving and a certain laziness in menu writing that reflects poorly on the rest of the business. So I got turned off. This has happened to me before with other places as well, including the “papa” instead of “patata” thing or an Argentine restaurant getting the names of the cuts of meat wrong, for example. It’s also happened to me with French and English in different contexts.

So the question is: Have you experienced something similar with a language or food culture you are particularly familiar with? What was your reaction? And do you think it’s justified to write-off a restaurant because of such a thing?

Leff would simply be wrong about the wording . The Canary Islands are fully part of Spain, yet use the word “papa”. It is a matter of dialect. On other threads, I’ve mentioned the disparate, regional names for a bread roll in the UK - within 20 miles of my home, the same product is a barmcake, bap or cob.

But, on the wider issue, yes I come across odd wording very, very regularly. It seems to particularly affect south asian restaurants. The sort of places that describe their food as “authentic” or traditional", yet are no such thing. I’d often order something from the menu, enjoy it and , when back home, Google the dish, only to find the name only ever comes back to that particular restaurant. Now, there’s obviously nothing wrong with a chef inventing a dish - it’s what chefs do - but why try to pass it off as something “traditional”. To a lesser extent, Turkish restaurants seem to be affected by the same issue.

And, no, I wouldnt write-off a place because of this (although the number of “errors” you mention about the Spanish place would make me think about it). One of my regular criticisms of a number of “Chowhound Fundamentalists” was their denigration of anything not meeting their niche standards about “authenticity”. it is not how most of us eat - not even most of us who use to contribute to Chowhound. We look for delicious food - a good dinner, if you will. And I really couldnt care less about whether a Bengali dish is authentic - not least as I am not Bengali and would have absolutely fuck all idea whether it was authentic or not.


I only write off restaurants if their food or service is bad.

That being said, it’s amusing to me to see a menu item such as this:


Aglio e olio is simply garlic oil, so why have “garlic” follow this in English, but use Italian to describe the garlic oil? So goofy.

1 Like

Seems to happen fairly often. I know places where they will toss in a gratuitous French word, when there’s a perfectly understood English one - escargots instead of snails, bleu cheese instead of blue, navettes instead of turnips. Fully understood if these were French restaurants but theyre not.

Is the food good?

That’s the only thing that matters. They can call it anything they want if it’s good as far as I’m concerned.


I’ve written about this elsewhere, but typos on menus generally make me think that a restaurant isn’t paying attention to detail. Think about it; the menu is one of the first impressions made! Then again, I see typos everywhere and can’t UNsee them…

I’ve said it over and over again–if I could figure out how to earn a legit paycheck doing it, I’d edit restaurant menus for a living. That said, I’d probably have to hire some folks to work with me who are familiar with other languages, as I definitely don’t recognize papa vs. patata as an issue! :slight_smile:

All that said, I’m far more likely to give an ethnic restaurant a pass for misspellings than I am at other restaurants.


‘Bleu’ cheese is a particular peeve of mine.


Whereas to me it doesn’t even blip my radar, as my brain doesn’t flag it as a misspelling after living in France for several years. I see it as grey/gray…both completely acceptable.

An ethnic restaurant gets an automatic pass, as it’s highly likely that English is not a mother tongue. If it’s decipherable by someone of average intelligence, then you can “get the drift”.


Does it depend on whether the culture has a strong written tradition and/or whether they use a western alphabet…?

In Thai food for example few recipes were written down, instead they were handed down orally thus the spelling of dishes will vary. In Chinese cuisines the characters need to be translated into words in a western alphabet which can depend a lot on personal interpretation. And as Harter’s says lots of food comes from countries with a lot of regional linguistic differences and including multiple languages - Spain as mentioned, but think of the many languages in India.

That said food from cultures with an established, formalised language and tradition should be expressed accurately (allowing for regional variation). If a restaurant doesn’t really know or understand the correct terms for the dish I wonder how accurate the cooking is going to be. Short cuts in writing a menu could be indicative of short cuts in the kitchen or a in attention to detail.

I suppose the latter often doesn’t include “ethnic” restaurants but that said ethnic does vary from place to place. After all Spanish in London wouldn’t really be thought of as ethnic as its a mainstream European cuisine.

1 Like

For the same reason one sees “Roast Beef with Au Jus Sauce”.


And in fact, not only do they get an automatic pass, but to me misspelling may suggest that the food is ‘authentic’. (Good or not is another matter.)


There’s a term for this— Shibboleths, words or phrases that reveal someone to be a member of an in or out group

This doesn’t bother me at all. I suspect when translations are done it is often a friend or family member volunteering. With the cost of putting a restaurant together money is pretty tight by the time a menu has been set, prices determined, etc. Wouldn’t be surprised if translations were done using an on-line translator.

I’ve known American born chefs who had poor written skills. Not every restaurant has the funds or the staff to put out a well designed, proofed menu. Doesn’t mean they don’t have kitchen chops - which is ultimately what I’m there for.

1 Like

Many years before on-line translators (indeed, many years before the internet), I was in Spain and read this translation - “grill a dried brick pork loin”. Fortunately, the Spanish version told me it was a pork kebab (brocheta de cerdo) - and very nice it was too.

when we lived in France, the waiters, not realizing that we were actually resident, would fall all over themselves to bring us the English-language menu.

Most of the time, it was a school project done by a child (the owner’s or a niece/nephew) and were simply awful. They were always surprised, and a little disappointed, when we’d ask for the French menu because it was actually comprehensible.

This is still one of my favourite menu listings.


There’s a place we go in Tenerife that specialises in rice dishes. They always bring the English language version which doesnt really tell you much about the food - I keep meaning to ask for one in Castilian so I can properly see what they offer. That said, we do find it very difficult to get past the very excellent Valencian paella.

By the by, doesnt/didnt our friend Linguafood do menu translations for places when she goes back to Germany?

That is one of the longest and best Chowhound discussions.

In the five years since that discussion was started, it’s become more common for Chinese restaurants to include photographs on their menus or walls. That makes communication less of a problem.

1 Like

She did. She was very kind to answer a lot of questions, as had we stayed I was considering doing a similar business where we lived. We were close to Disneyland Paris, so there was no shortage of restaurants that needed a carte en anglais. (I have the added skill of being able to use UK spellings, so could have done multiple versions as needed).

in Greece all the best restaurants have ‘Lamp’ on the menu.

Help cover Hungry Onion's costs when you shop at Amazon!

Bessarabsky Market, Kyiv. Ukraine
Credit: Juan Antonio Segal, Flickr