Sandwiches on restaurant menus - only in Canada, you say? Pity.
November 23, 2012 10:33 AM   Subscribe

Is it unusual to see sandwiches and burgers on restaurant menus outside the US and Canada?

I have a relative who left Canada in the 60s to move to the UK. Since then, she and her family have lived in the UK and Northern Europe. Whenever they visit us, they get very annoyed (and judgy) about how our restaurant menus almost never have "proper meals" on them. They go to great lengths to point out that most of the food on the menu is a sandwich, burger or wrap or, perhaps a selection of pastas and stirfries, and then only a few items that are "proper meals'.

I've countered with the fact that they are going to fast casual restaurants, which I understand to be somewhat uncommon outside the US and Canada. I've also noted that these menus have many selections that feature entrees, but that they (and my Canadian relatives) choose not to order them as they range from $18 to $30 and my family prefers to dine out happily more often for $8-$12 meals.

I let them know that, if they wish to go to a restaurant that is not fast casual, they would find most of the entrees would be "proper meals", as they call them. And that, in those cases, they would also be paying the prices they are used to in the UK/Europe. I explained that fast casual restaurants are more like pubs than what they expect, since many of them do double duty as sports bars.

Incidentally, when they do order a "proper meal", they complain that they are not getting meat covered in a "proper sauce". I gently explained that perhaps the meat here has more traditionally been of a quality where sauces were not needed and so not ever meal we serve has "sauce". (Sorry - after that much complaining, I wasn't quite as keen on being polite.) So maybe they just have it in for everything here.

Anyway, per the chicken sandwich question earlier today, I wondered about traditions in other countries. I am a bit baffled by them, as I've travelled to many countries around the world and I think there is a wide variety of restaurant items. And I'd expect that, taking countries like NZ and Australia into account, menus couldn't be that different. So perhaps it's just the UK and Europe or the kinds of restaurants my relatives visit? Or their desire to complain and distance themselves from all things Canadian?

Fast casual restaurant examples: White Spot, Moxie's, Earls, Cactus Club, Boston Pizza.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
(To clarify, I meant that if you look like countries similar to Canada, menus are probably not that different. And also that I believe menus worldwide to have a lot of variety. Not trying to suggest Canadian menus are norm!)
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:34 AM on November 23, 2012

In western europe or places with a lot of tourism, then yeah, you will find plenty of menus with this familiar fast casual feel to them. In more out-of-the-way places it is somewhat less likely. That said, I think these particular relatives of yours might have a bit of what I tend to call the Emigration Syndrome (aka everything is bad in this place that i left behind) that's responsible for these complaints.
posted by elizardbits at 10:44 AM on November 23, 2012 [10 favorites]

In Central America, there's a difference between comedors (diners), which are basically casual dining, and restaurantes, which are sit down restaurants. The former will have more sandwiches, burritos, pupusas and cafeteria style foods, which are cheap and served quickly. The later have more expensive 'proper' meals and much slower service.

Then you also have street stalls, which usually only serve one or two things (like tacos or pupusas), and your fast food chains like McDonalds and Pollo Campero.
posted by empath at 10:46 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whenever I've gone to Europe (usually Eastern/Northern, not Western) I have definitely noticed a dearth of burgers/sandwiches/wraps/etc. on the menus of Actual Restaurants (as opposed to a cafe or bistro or street food served indoors.) In fact, when they do appear, they're usually a meal that is in the shape of a burger or sandwich but is absolutely meant to be eaten with a knife and fork.
posted by griphus at 10:46 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it unusual to see sandwiches and burgers on restaurant menus outside the US and Canada?

That question doesn't sit with your later statement:

They go to great lengths to point out that most of the food on the menu is a sandwich, burger or wrap or, perhaps a selection of pastas and stirfries, and then only a few items that are "proper meals'.

Burgers sandwiches are much more prevalent on menus in a greater number of places than they are in the UK. Despite the snobbery a lot of people have for English food (based on no personal experience in the last 15-20 years, usually) a restaurant and even a pub menu has a much higher proportion of 'proper meals' (ie not fancy sandwich shop or up-market fast food-equivalents) rather than 'pub snack/fast food' kind of stuff.

I moved to Canada from the UK 6 years ago - I miss the prevalence of decent pub food back home. There simply isn't the volume of cheap restaurant (fast casual is a good description, but it could also be considered 'slightly slow fast food' in content) that there is. There are your McD's and the like, maybe a Pizza Hut or similar and then a lot of chain pubs and then a restaurant selection from mid price to high. Back home I could go to a pub and get a nice meal (more meat, veg and potatoes, pasta dishes and the like on the menu but there'd be a burger or sandwich section but it would be smaller than it is in Canada and the US. There does seem to be a LOT more burger options than anything else (I've eaten out a LOT in Canada). It does seem, when you get here, that there is a prevalence of low quality options and cheap, fast food like styles compared to back home. To get a decent selection of non-burger meals you have to go relatively expensive - ie The Keg and above (so not THAT expensive).

I gently explained that perhaps the meat here has more traditionally been of a quality where sauces were not needed and so not ever meal we serve has "sauce".

You're being every bit as snobby (and wrong) with that as the reaction you are objecting to. Sauces on food is a cultural/cuisine thing, not usually a quality of meat thing. Also, meat in Canada (while better than the US by and large) is not by any means notably better than that available in the UK or Europe.

relatives of yours might have a bit of what I tend to call the Emigration Syndrome (aka everything is bad in this place that i left behind) that's responsible for these complaints.

That's possible, but also - given the very real differences in styles of food available, they may just like the stuff that isn't as prevalent in Canada. Eating out here and in the US does leave me feeling like there's hardly any thing on the damn menu, as it all seems a bit samey. I've had exactly the same reaction (except the sauce bit) as these guys. Menus over in Canada have very little variety, especially once you've been to a few chains and realise that the same approximation is available in all of them.

Sauces: Pasta sauces in the cheaper 'fast casual' restaurants are generally bland and crappy or over0complicated. They're just not very good. The resurgence of giving a shit about food in the UK (and perhaps the proximity to Europe and its cuisine) has meant that you can actually get decent pasta meals and this may be why I have had better pasta sauces back home then here (in non-Italian restaurants in both, and I don't count East Side Marios and all that shite as italian).
posted by Brockles at 10:51 AM on November 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think they are seeing only what they wish to see, and it's a waste of time to argue with them. "Yes, people here tend to prefer more casual food, isn't that an interesting cultural difference? Now, how about those [insert preferred sports team here]?"

Don't sweat it. More yummy sandwiches for the rest of us!
posted by Liesl at 11:02 AM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Uh, I live in the UK and I cannot recall the last time I went to a restaurant that didn't have some kind of burger on the menu. They usually have sandwiches too. Sure, they have other stuff too that may be more "proper" meals, but honestly I suspect it is just your relatives.

(Also, US meat is of a higher quality? I always got the impression that US meat is not great unless you go to really good restaurants, especially compared to places in Europe like France or Germany?)
posted by stillnocturnal at 11:11 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're being every bit as snobby (and wrong) with that as the reaction you are objecting to. Sauces on food is a cultural/cuisine thing, not usually a quality of meat thing. Also, meat in Canada (while better than the US by and large) is not by any means notably better than that available in the UK or Europe.

To clarify, I am not referring to the present. I'm talking about how the availability of food may influence how a culture's cuisine develops. Two chefs have told me that Canadian cuisine developed without sauce because fresh meat was available on most farms. As a result, people cooked their meals simply, without needing to people cooked it simply, without sauces, because they were eating meat within a few days of it being killed or caught or because they had already smoked, salted or brined it. I don't mean to suggest that current foods are any different, nor do I mean to suggest that people put spice on food to hide rotting meat. Moreover, it was more of a slam meant to shut them up, as you would not believe how long they go on about this for, despite telling me at length that all the meat in Europe and the UK is "mad cow" and so on. (I don't actually know why they eat meat at all, given this.)

If you go to the UK (or Northern Europe), can you get what my relatives call a "proper meal" in a restaurant for $8-12? I'm thinking maybe it's just that my family is taking them to casual restaurants and my relatives don't realize that they aren't being taken to mid-market restaurants.

Emigration Syndrome. That is probably it. Their kids, who are my age and who grew up in Europe, repeatedly tell me Canada has no culture and no history. I'm not sure we're the uncultured ones, though. lol
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:11 AM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

This question is kind of all over the place so my answer will be too. Firstly I think we lived in different Canadas, because in my three years of living in dowtown Toronto I never once at at White Spot, Moxie's, Earls, Cactus Club, Boston Pizza, and only once was I forced to eat at Jack Astor's due to a work-related event. If you went out to eat with me when I lived in Toronto, you would rarely find a burger, sandwich, or wrap on the menu because I simply did not eat at that type of place. Not being a snob just saying different strokes for different folks. So I guess what I'm trying to say is the particular type of restaurant you are referring to (which I will refer to as "Applebees" for lack of a better term) is fairly prevalent in suburban North America, and I would agree that the menu at Applebees restaurants is kind of similar and unimaginative and heavily focused on salads, wraps, and burgers. It's a menu designed to offend nobody and offer lots of different things so everyone in your party can find something to eat even if it's not that great. However, outside of North America (and in large cities in North America) Applebees aren't quite as common and it isn't as common to go out and eat at that type of place. You'd more likely eat at some restaurant that specializes in a particular type of food, e.g. an Italian restaurant. A sushi restaurant. A French restaurant. So to answer your question, if you were to find an Applebees outside of North America, then the menu would likely have roughly the same proportion of wraps and burgers, but if you were to take wraps and burgers as a % of all non-North-American menus and weight this by # of diners, then I would say that they are indeed less common.
posted by pravit at 11:17 AM on November 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you go to the UK (or Northern Europe), can you get what my relatives call a "proper meal" in a restaurant for $8-12?

No. Not even close. But for £8-12 you may have good luck getting something at some places places (like a pub, rather than a restaurant), which might be what they mean. It is really expensive in the UK by comparison. If they're telling you that food is anywhere close to as cheap, then they're just lying or a 'proper meal' is nothing like as fancy as they are leading you to believe. You should be able to get a good main course (entree, of course, being a starter) for around 10 quid if you pick a cheap place, up to around £15 for the top end of a pub menu (middle of the road, non gastro-pub).

Two chefs have told me that Canadian cuisine developed without sauce because fresh meat was available on most farms.

This is also true of Europe and the UK and only really precludes hotter or colder places less friendly to food storage or with a smaller seasonal availability of meat or some ingredients.
posted by Brockles at 11:24 AM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Look at this pub menu, for example: (link at the bottom for a pdf sadly). Three variations on burger, no sandwiches at all outside the lunch menu. The sandwich/burger stuff combined makes up less than a fifth or so of the menu, maybe not even that.

I've not eaten at that place, so can't count for quality, but that seems typical to me. Much, MUCH more choice than any of the places you listed as fast casual. Much more appetising food, to my eye too. Maybe that step difference is something they very much appreciated when they left Canada, took it for granted as the evolution of restaurants generally and miss it more than they realise when they went back?
posted by Brockles at 11:29 AM on November 23, 2012

As you suggest, they need to go to more expensive places for their desires, and even then, when traveling, to whine about a "proper meal" as opposed to what you get is not such a great idea.
You see sandwiches all over the UK, it's totally a lunch item for tons of people, almost silly actually for other "North Europeans". You can also find Burgers across the entire North of Europe, good ones, bad ones and great ones. But it's true, if you order a portion of, say, liver and mash on a terrace in Central London for lunch, what you'll get is fried, sliced liver, a huge blob of brown sauce, a mountain of mashed potatoes and Fujichrome-green re-heated frozen peas. If tha' ain't propah...
posted by Namlit at 11:54 AM on November 23, 2012

FWIW, our menus are the same here in Australia... even in "nice" places you can get gourmet versions. I've seen similar menus everywhere I've traveled... Japan, Italy, France, England; the exception was maybe China. You could get burgers/sandwiches, but restaurants served -duh- local Chinese food. (In Japan there are more western-style food places due, I suspect, to the American occupation following WWII; they are also highly "Japanized" versions of these foods... but pizza, burgers, pasta etc. is pretty common.)
posted by jrobin276 at 12:04 PM on November 23, 2012

"Proper meal" is obviously a subjective term. I haven't been to the UK since 1997 (so maybe restaurants have changed), but prior to that time I visited several times per year and traveled from London to Southport to Edinburgh to Inverness to Brighton to Great Yarmouth and many tiny towns in between. During that time we've experienced such cultural differences as ordering a "hamburger with salad", waiting for the server to ask what type of dressing we wanted. Turns out "with salad" meant that the burger came topped with lettuce and tomato. We've been in buffet-style restaurants where cauliflower with melted cheese was considered an entree and not a side dish (much to my surprise at check-out). In my limited experience, you could not buy what a typical family-style US restaurant would consider a "proper meal" (soup or salad, bread basket, entree with potatoes and vegetable) for our typical $8-$12. Such a meal would cost much more in a typical UK restaurant. Very few of the UK restaurants were as all-inclusive meal-wise as their US couterparts...even in, say, Italian restaurants, an entree didn't automatically include soup or salad - that had to be purchased separately. And there was no "endless" bread basket.

As far as your relatives' complaints about restaurant menus being filled with nothing more than burgers and sandwiches and "wraps", have they never been to a Denny's or Big Boy or Cracker Barrel or...etc...? There are dozens of mid-priced family-style restaurants that serve full meals at popular prices in both the US and Canada.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:06 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm Canadian, but I recall tonnes of casual restaurants in Europe that had sandwiches of various styles. Or, if not sandwiches, then pizzas (especially in southern Europe) or other more casual fare.

That said, some of the chain restaurants (like Earl's) do try to read more "upscale" in decor and price without really bringing their food up to those standards. But that's like, just my opinion, man. So maybe your relatives are getting conflicting messages about the level of "class" associated with a particular style of restaurant that they cannot easily parse because class is less fluid and has differing cultural markers in Europe than it does in North America?

But it's not like this style of menu and restaurant is really different for the chain restaurants than their non-chain counterparts. Having a cheaper section of "light fare" or "casual fare" and a pricier page of so-called proper meals is a fairly standard arrangement. (And, contrary to what privet, it's an arrangement that is equally prevalent out east as they are in the west. I lived in Ottawa and Toronto for a spell as well. Enjoyed many "upscale" versions of the reuben and club sandwich over there, served at supper time.)
posted by Kurichina at 12:12 PM on November 23, 2012

Maybe they are really being snobby about going to chain restaurants? I think there might be more in North America than elsewhere.
posted by superfish at 12:29 PM on November 23, 2012

Obviously, you can get sandwiches in every corner of the world, but a lot of places, local food is better and cheaper. I recently argued with my students about food prices in Rome, and I think the real issue was that they wanted/needed sandwiches, hamburgers and soft-drinks, which are incredibly expensive in Italy, often more expensive than a three course meal with wine and bottled water included. The first time I took my grandmother to Rome, I had a hard time convincing her that we couldn't afford "fast-food", and had to eat at "real restaurants". But she learnt the hard way.
Also, I disagree with those who claim it is impossible to get pub food or something similar for 8-12 pounds. I was recently in London, and had an amazing 2-course lunch for 6 pounds, the only day I was alone. The other days I was with fancy people at *very* fancy restaurants, and still there were plenty mains at 12-16 pounds. And London is a very expensive place to be. I just googled the most popular fancy restaurants here in my home town, and mains seem to be at €10-14 as a standard, everyday restaurants have menus at prices very close to or below those of the American burger places, but they don't have websites. I think one problem is that restaurants many Europeans find comforting and friendly seem almost third-world style to North Americans. Europeans are not as fond of chains as North Americans seem to be, and the restaurants may seem dark, scrubby and uninviting to many Americans.

Personally, I would not enjoy eating sandwiches and/or burgers more than once a week. No details, but I feel significantly better if I can eat less carbohydrates and more greens. Sauce, for me, is the essence of well-made food, wether it be a simple mayo-based thing or a 12-hour cooking reduced classic sauce. At this point of my life, I wouldn't be snobbish about it, but I would be unhappy and maybe a bit irritable if I were for some reason forced to endure a sandwich diet.
I've just gone through 6 weeks of kitchen renovation, which meant eating out for all meals. I don't think I had one meal at a chain restaurant, and in all during those 6 weeks, I had in all 3 sandwich/burger type stuff, 2 of those Shawarmas. I don't eat wraps at all ever, after a time in Mexico where I was very ill.
I had breakfast at the local bakery, where they also serve great tea and coffee. Lunch at work, which like many Euro workplaces has a health-policy and a cafeteria working with this policy and a price policy that can compete with home-made lunch-boxes. Dinner at one of the hundreds of small restaurants in my neighborhood serving local or ethnic food for less than €10 (my favorite place has a dinner for €5). Weekends I splurged and went to places with better service and cool clients, but still always for less than €20 pr meal including drinks but not tips.

Maybe your relatives would enjoy ethnic restaurants more? When I am in North America, I am always amazed at all the possibilities even small provincial towns offer, in terms of diversity. I had never been to Asia when I first lived in the US, but learnt about Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese cooking, from people who really knew what they were doing. And I easily found friends with whom I could develop the mediterranean cooking I was used to. English food is much underrated - I lived in England as a child and still miss the pies and the roasts and the brussels sprouts, and the gravy, and the sausages and.....
Maybe there are even nostalgic English places where you live?
posted by mumimor at 1:32 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually I would say that in Australia and New Zealand there is a difference between "cafes" and "restaurants". Cafes can be open at evening dinner times and do often have a selection of dinner menu items, which would almost always include burgers and sandwiches. Real restaurants might sometimes have (posh) burgers, pretty much never sandwiches, and more often would have neither.

To clarify, by "cafe" I mean the sort of place where you might order at the counter (although a lot nowadays have table service too), and there's typically indoor and outdoor seating, you aren't expected to make a reservation, and it's normal to just go there for drinks or dessert. I'm counting as a "real" restaurant one that prefers you to make a reservation, to wait at the door for a waiter to show you to your table, to order at your table, and to have a full meal. Restaurants are usually licenced; cafes are usually not.
posted by lollusc at 4:38 PM on November 23, 2012

I've also noted that these menus have many selections that feature entrees, but that they (and my Canadian relatives) choose not to order them as they range from $18 to $30 and my family prefers to dine out happily more often for $8-$12 meals.

This is the key things to my mind. This (PDF) is the menu of a pub near where my grandad lives, which, food-wise, is probably inhabiting the sort of Applebee's space, but less expensive. (I'm pretty sure the menu's corporate.) The thing that stands out to me in comparison to American menus is first the vegetarian options, which isn't so relevant to the discussion, and secondly the pricing. The burgers cost roughly the same (if not a little more) than the chicken tikka masala or the lasagne or whatever. In the US, anything requiring a knife and fork seems to cost $3-4 more than a burger or sandwich. I'm admittedly cheap and usually find 'fast casual' restaurants more than I want to spend, but that $3-4 means I always end up with something from the burger/sandwich section of the menu, to the point that I frequently don't read the rest. I scan the prices quickly, but don't usually bother to hunt for the vegetarian option. (In the US, the sort of restaurant that has a bunch of burger/sandwich options then more expensive 'proper' main courses generally has some kind of veggie burger, as long as it's not a chain. Things like Applebee's and TGI Friday's are a trainwreck.)
posted by hoyland at 5:33 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hoyland, that's exactly what I mean. My family goes to places similar to Friendly Forrester (or Applebee's, but they aren't in my family's town either). And then my UK/Euro relatives complain that they can't get a proper meal (their words). However, they seem to be wanting to spend <>
But it may just be that they like to complain. They frequently make comments about Canada. I then have to explain to them that they are commenting on the working class area of a small town in an isolated area of the country. It's certainly not the same as dining out in downtown Vancouver, for example, and even the chain restaurants have different menus.

But I'm glad for the Friendly Forrester link. That looks very similar to what we have here, so I can't believe NONE of Northern Europe ever has that sort of menu. Thanks.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 5:59 PM on November 23, 2012

It's probably not your relatives' issue, but it is worth remembering that North American anglophones use the word "entrée" in a bizarre fashion. In the original French, "entrée" means "appetizer" (literally, "entry," i.e., the dish with which your meal begins). The main course is the "plat"; that might be preceded by a fish dish if you're pulling out all the stops.

Around 1900 (more or less), for reasons that are still obscure, North Americans started using "entrée" to refer to the main course. In contemporary UK usage, though, "starters" and "mains" is standard. Is there any chance that your relatives are looking at the menu and seeing only sandwiches, burgers, and appetizers (very expensive appetizers, to be sure)?

Beyond that, though, I do find that food you eat with your fingers (including burgers, sandwiches, and wraps) is far less common at restaurants in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy (the western European countries where I've spent much time) than it is in the US and Canada. I've often thought that if you want to know how adaptable a French person is to unusual cultural practices, you should take him or her to an Ethiopian restaurant, because common dishes that you eat with your fingers violate two basic principles of French restaurant cuisine. (Even Chinese restaurants in France presume that each diner will want his or her own appetizer, main, and dessert, though authentic ones are happy to be proven wrong and to serve everything family style.)

The sauces business is just a cultural difference, if you're talking Friendly Forrester-kind sauces in the UK. Keep in mind that you can still buy "Brown Sauce" in UK supermarkets. (We would call it "steak sauce" in North America.) French cuisine depends very much on the quality and range of its sauces, but that's another matter entirely.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:17 PM on November 23, 2012

Re entrée – and following from brianogilvie's remarks – Quebec anglos don't use the entrée = main dish equivalence, which has tripped up more than a few visitors reading menus in Montreal. An entrée is a starter.
posted by zadcat at 7:24 PM on November 23, 2012

Here is the menu for Weatherspoon's, the UK's largest pub chain. Sunday lunch (roast dinner) is around £7.50 depending on location. Here's the menu for the London Pub Co. You can see that there are hot meals under the £12 mark. Most pubs that are not boozers serve hot food.

The UK likes sauces because the UK has a love for onion gravy, and you get it with everything from Toad in the Hole to Shepard's Pie to any roast. Also, when I moved to the UK I quickly became very conversant in Béchamel sauce, which was not something I'd particularly noticed in my US eating but was everywhere in the UK, I assume due to the culinary influence of neighbouring France.

I gently explained that perhaps the meat here has more traditionally been of a quality where sauces were not needed and so not ever meal we serve has "sauce".

That is misinformed and borderline offensive. I don't know how you are defining "quality" here, but regular boring Irish or British beef bought in a grocery store is grass fed, pasture reared and hormone-free by law, where North American beef is maize and grain fed in feedlots and hormone-enhanced. Slaughterhouse standards are also very different here than in the US and all meat is vet-inspected, piece by individual piece, as it is butchered. Preference for sauce in this case is about culinary tradition and nothing else - certainly not meat quality.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:34 AM on November 24, 2012

Thanks for that. I don't think they are confused about entrees - one of them grew up here. Those menus are some help, but, again, even #7.50 is $12 Canadian and that's a special, so my point that they're looking at the cheap meals and not the less modest priced mains still holds. I noticed those menus still had things like stirfries and sandwiches, but at the lower range of the menu (and, in the case of the London pub, for about twice what you'd pay here).

@DarlingBri, I meant no offense. Two chefs have told me that their culinary arts programs said that North American settlers in the 1600s to 1700s were more likely to have access to fresh meat than someone living in London or the like at the same time and that this influenced the development of our cuisine. I was also told something similar when I dined in a Canadian National Park and had "traditional" food (from the time of the fortress) - they said all that was used was a pinch of salt, as the food was fresh and that became the style. I am talking about food from 200-400 years ago and how that affected the development of sauces, not about 2012 foods.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 7:48 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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