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How to Create Budget-Minded Menus

By M+E Staff

Chef Kevin McAllister sat at a Cuban restaurant in Chicago contemplating why the fresh steak sandwich he was eating cost half of what he served at The Robey, a hotel/ restaurant in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Then it hit him—it was the quality of the products and the simplicity found in one over the other. The Cuban restaurant served theirs with a thin slice of steak, onions and melted cheese, while customers who order The Robey’s sandwich will find themselves biting into mediumrare flat-iron steak topped with tomato-onion jam, garlic aioli, crispy fried onions and pickled fennel. Both have quality, fresh ingredients, but as the cost steepens, the ingredients become more elaborate and the concepts more out-of-the-box.

That same thought process can be applied to catering. The more money you spend, the more food—and likely more creative concepts—you’re going to get. To emphasize that point, we asked one hotel, one restaurant and one conference center to create three different menus that demonstrate what planners can get at various price points. As you can see, even the low budget choices offer plenty of appealing options.

Emily Yao, manager of sales and team development at Paramount Events in Chicago, notes that it’s difficult to articulate exactly what an average low, mid and high price point is, because each catering company, restaurant, hotel conference center and any other venue differ based on product, labor and other factors. In general, Yao says, the cost of food and beverage has risen in recent years and will likely continue to rise.

Hotel: The Robey

Low Price Point

» Shaved garden veggies, Boston bibb lettuce, green goddess dressing
» Celery root veloute, torn bread crisps, chive oil
» Roasted chicken breast, fall squash puree, roasted Brussels sprouts, pomegranate seeds, wild rice
» Chocolate ganache, strawberry gel, chocolate crumble, vanilla custard

Mid Price Point

» Curly endive, concord grape vinaigrette, pickled and roasted cauliflower, candied pistachios, fresh farm grapes
» Seared sea scallops, brown butter sage plum puree, toasted brioche, micro peppercress, fresh yellow plums and red wine reduction
» Barrel cut rib eye, Dijon sweet potato puree, blistered cipollini onions, hen of the woods mushrooms, oxtail ragout, horseradish chips, baby kale and pilsner jus
» Almond and poppy seed bread, blackberry sorbet, canary melon, marcona almonds and shaved white chocolate
» Mini chocolate chip cookies

High Price Point

» Smoked salmon rillettes, rye crisp, red beet giardiniera stout reduction
» Seared foie gras, toasted brioche, pistachio butter, concord gel, pickled onions, black pepper, chives
» Butter-poached lobster, grilled escarole, roasted red pepper, charred onions, fingerling potatoes, beurre monte, chicken jus
» Pineapple curry soup, coconut stick
» Pan roasted sea bass, butternut squash puree, black garlic, spigarello, toasted pumpkin seeds, delicata squash, maple
» Roasted poussin, celery root and wild rice risotto, crispy Brussels sprouts, fresh leaves, cranberry gastrique, puffed rice
» Toasted honey cake, brown butter plum sorbet, flexible white chocolate, candied oats, baked Italian plums, natural syrup
» Almond and rosemary madeleines

Restaurant: River Roast

Low Price

» Point House salad with tomatoes, onions, red wine vinaigrette
» River Roast signature chicken breast lightly smoked, oven roasted, natural jus; served with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables
» Assorted cookies, fudge brownies, lemon bars, seasonal berries, fresh fruit

Mid Price Point

» Shrimp De Jonghe
» Classic Caesar salad with romaine, Parmesan croutons, creamy Caesar dressing
» Seared seasonal salmon, lemon chive butter served with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables OR Filet mignon 8 oz. demi-glace, served with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables
» Assorted cupcakes, ice cream station, strawberry, chocolate, caramel sauce, mixed berry compote, sprinkles, crushed peanuts, red cherries, whipped cream
» Locally roasted Metropolis coffee (and decaf) and assorted international teas

High Price Point

Passed hors d’oeuvres


» Mini beef Wellington, white truffle aioli
» Mini loaded potato (twice-baked spud)
» Golden gobbets (seasoned fried chicken), honey
» Tomato soup shooter and mini grilled cheese sandwich


» Tomato bruschetta, spiced ricotta and French bread
» Deviled eggs, crispy bacon, cornichon, chives
» Yellowfin tuna tartare, ginger, scallions, Sriracha, togarashi chip
» Preserved fruit and goat cheese, walnut, crostini

» Crab cake slaw and tartar sauce
» Mixed greens with candied pecans, goat cheese, dried cranberries, raspberry vinaigrette
» Surf and turf: petite filet mignon with demi-glace and grilled jumbo shrimp
» Housemade cookies, triple-chocolate brownie bites, lemon squares, mini èclairs, fresh fruit tarts, fresh fruit and berries
» Locally roasted Metropolis coffee (and decaf) and assorted international teas

Conference Center: Lincolnshire Marriott Resort

Low Price

» Point Mushroom crostini; Chicken kabob; Duck and cheese quesadillas; Burrata, tomato, balsamic
» Chicken and wild rice
» Fall market salad: beets, carrots, fennel, cider vinaigrette
» Caper-crusted seared chicken with gremolata, lemon, beurre blanc wine sauce
» White chocolate mousse bombe with lemon cream center, raspberries, pistachio

Mid Price Point

» Smoked salmon cornets; Beet and goat cheese tarts; Artichoke beignets; Mini Reubens
» Lobster bisque
» Harvest salad: baby greens, local apples, candied pecans, Bleu cheese, vanilla balsamic vinaigrette
» Seared walleye pike with sun-dried tomato OR 10-oz. Parmesan-crusted strip steak with red wine sauce
» Caramel s’mores tart or vanilla bean cheesecake with blackberry compote, Grand Marnier Chantilly

High Price Point

» Avocado prosciutto and manchego; Spicy tuna cones; Lobster salad tarts; Italian sausage and goat cheese; Smoked salmon cornets
» Pumpkin and mascarpone ravioli
» Arugula salad, fresh mozzarella, roasted tomato, crostini and basil vinaigrette
» Beef tenderloin and seafood combo plate: 5-oz. center-cut filet with red wine sauce and pan-seared bass with roasted red pepper chimichurri
» Flourless chocolate cake with candied orange or key lime pie with white chocolate mousse, blueberry jam