What Does à La Carte Mean?

A Common Phrase Used by Restaurants

Shashlik Restaurant menu.
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The term à la carte is used to describe how restaurants price menu items that you order. À la carte means 'according to the menu' and is a French phrase. A restaurant that prices items à la carte may list those in a printed menu, on a tablet, post them on a board or even provide the information verbally. It isn't so much about where the information is posted or how it is presented, it's a method of charging.

When you look at a regular restaurant menu you'll typically see prices quoted à la carte. In other words, each item will have a price associated with it, and you can pick and choose which items you'd like to order. You will be charged for each item that you choose based on that item's price. Isn't that the way it always is? No! Sometimes a restaurant will offer an all-you-can-eat buffet, and no matter what you eat, or how much, you will pay one designated price. A third option that is very common at Phoenix area restaurants is the prix fixe meal, where there are a certain number of courses offered at a fixed price, and you may be able to choose from a few items for each course. These are typically three-, four- or five-course meals.

Which is the best? It simply depends on how you like to eat! À la carte pricing is probably best if you aren't a big eater, if you have special dietary requirements, or you enjoy ordering several appetizers as your meal.

A buffet may be your best bet if you enjoy having a wide variety of foods during a meal or you like to eat a lot at one sitting to last you the entire day! A prix fixe menu may be called for if you like to be served and not go to a buffet table to serve yourself, but you enjoy a multi-course meal. The total charge for a prix-fixe meal is often less than if you would order those same menu items on an à la carte (or individual) basis from the regular menu.

On holidays that are popular for family get-togethers, like Valentine's DayEaster, Mother's Day and Father's Day, you'll find all these choices — à la carte, prix-fixe and buffet.

For a weekend brunch, you might find a combination of two or even all three types of pricing at a single restaurant. For example, there might be a buffet, with a prix-fixe three-course meal and the option to order à la carte from the regular menu. Sometimes restaurants will offer a buffet with a special à la carte list of additional plated items. This might be the best of all worlds for a larger group where everyone can choose the way they like to order. Typically beverages are not included with brunch unless the menu specifically states that they are. Sometimes restaurants will automatically add a gratuity on prix-fixe or buffet meals, and for larger groups. Keep in mind that not all buffets are all-you-can-eat! Sometimes a restaurant will allow only one trip to a buffet.

Tax and gratuity are usually charged in addition to the à la carte price on the menu.

Additional Information

Pronunciation: ah lah cart

Also Known As: pay-as-you-go

Alternate Spellings: a la carte (without the accent)

Common Misspellings: a la cart

Examples: I don't want to eat too much at brunch, so I'll go to a restaurant where they offer an à la carte menu, and I'll pick and choose which individual items I'd like to eat from a menu.