An à la carte restaurant menu is one in which each item is listed separately with it’s own individual price. A true An à la carte, therefore, would have you choose each and every item you wanted to eat. For example, you might order a steak, a baked potato, a side vegetable, and a salad, and pay separately for each of these items.
A prix fixe menu, on the other hand, has only one price given for the entire meal. There may be more than one choice offered for each separate course, but each guest pays a fixed price for all of the coarses served as a meal. Very few restaurants in the United States offer pure prix fixe menus, but both à la carte and prix fixe require additional explanation.
Most people, when ordering from common restaurant menus in the US, mistakenly believe the menus to be à la carte, because they are choosing from several, or even many items that all have individual prices. À la carte is a French term meaning by, or according to the menu. This implies that you are ordering all the items individually, and none of them are part of a set meal. This is often assumed to be the typical menu setup. The prix fixe (pree feks) menu, attributed to the famous chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier, we rarely see, unless we go to a very upscale (and haughty) restaurant, and most Americans would be frustrated and annoyed by such lack of choice. Below is an example of a prix fixe menu.
The menu example above gives no choice. The meal starts with fried calamari, the main coarse is blackened redfish, and the desert is Savarin cheesecake. All of this comes for a fixed price of $33. If you want the wine pairings, listed underneath each choice, the price is raised to $43. This type of menu will probably seem foreign to most readers.
There is another term that is similar to prix fixe, however. A table d’hôte menu originally referred to a meal where everyone sits at a communal table and is served a meal much like how you would be served at someone’s house. Table d’hôte translates to “the host’s table.” This might be the kind of meal served at an inn or bed and breakfast, where the meal would also be served at a set time. This is the kind of meal we are familiar with, as well, from banquets. However, this term has, in modern times, also come to mean offering selections of complete meals with set prices. So, for example, instead of ordering a steak, potato, vegetable, and salad, all separate, each steak selection would come with choices of sides (baked potato, vegetable, etc.), and a side salad. This is how most menus we are familiar with in US restaurants work. But these menus are also mixed and combine table d’hôte with à la carte.
For example, on our hypothetical steak house menu, each steak comes with a choice of two sides, and a side salad for a set price. However, other items like beverages, soups, appetizers, additional sides or add ons, and deserts are offered à la carte. This is sometimes called a semi à la carte menu. Many menus that actually include vegetable accompaniments, salads, and other additions, label their menus à la carte simply because each main coarse and each starter is listed with a separate price. This is a typical way for the term to be used, but many menus have a separate à la carte section that includes individual items otherwise offered as part of a meal selection.
Mexican restaurants use this method, where various tacos, burritos, or enchiladas are offered as “platters” with rice, beans, or other sides on the main menu. However, under the à la carte section, individual tacos, burritos, chile rellenos, etc. are offered for order. In this way, the regular menu is offering “meals” at a set price (although many items are extra), and the à la carte menu is allowing you to build your own meal by ordering each item individually. For most all of these menu terms, there are no hard and fast rules on how they are used in the restaurant business.