In the culinary arts, the expression à la carte signifies a menu item that is priced individually, rather than as part of a meal. It comes from French and translated, it literally means "by the card," in referring to specific items listed on a menu.
For example, a grilled chicken breast à la carte would be served without any rice, potatoes, or vegetables with it.
À la carte can also refer to a menu in which the items presented on the menu are exactly as you will receive them at your table.
The diner would then be free to order side dishes such as vegetables and potatoes separately. You will often see this kind of menu at high-end steakhouses.
Reading a Menu
A standard restaurant menu will usually quote the prices à la carte. This means that each item on the menu will have its own specific price associated with it. You are able to pick and choose the items from the menu you would like to order. You will be charged for each item that you have selected.
Other Dining Arrangements
À la carte ordering is the opposite arrangement of a prix fixe (pronounced "pree feeks") menu or an all-you-can-eat buffet. With a prix-fixe menu, a diner might order a pre-set array of courses, such as appetizer, main course, and dessert, for a set price. You may be able to choose from a few set items for each course. Prix-fixe menus are typically three-, four-, or five-course meals and sometimes include a wine pairing for each course (for an additional fee).
An all-you-can-eat buffet is usually one set price per person. Once the diner has paid, that guest is free to visit the buffet as many times as they wish, and as the name implies, eat as much as they want.
Is À la Carte the Best Dining Option?
Determining the best dining option really comes down to a personal preference based on how hungry you are, how much you want to spend, and the type of restaurant or event you are celebrating.
For example, if you enjoy a wide variety of foods or you like to eat a lot, an all-you-can-eat buffet could be a good option. If you enjoy multiple courses but do not want multiple choices, a prix fixe menu is helpful. A prix fixe is also nice if you are dining out with a large group and will be sharing the cost of the meal. Since each diner's meal will cost the same amount, there will be little to calculate at the end of the meal. However, if you like to sample just a few dishes, or order a few appetizers and forego the main course, dining à la carte is likely your best option.
Do note that tax and gratuity are usually charged in addition to the à la carte price on the menu. While this is usually the case with both prix fixe and all-you-can-eat buffet menus as well, feel free to ask the restaurant if you have any questions.