A "signature dish" is a dish that is closely identified with a chef or a restaurant and stands out as a prime example of that person's or establishment's cuisine. A signature dish can be either an entirely new, exclusive creation, or just a variation on an old favorite, such as macaroni and cheese. Even in restaurants that regularly change their offerings, a signature dish will remain on the menu year after year because it helps establish identity and continuity.
A signature dish is not necessarily the fanciest or most expensive dish on the menu. Rather, it's the dish that best embodies the cooking style of a chef or restaurant. A chef at a seafood restaurant, for example, might devise a variation on clam chowder for her signature dish. At a steakhouse, the signature dish might be a moderately priced cut of beef treated with a specially developed marinade. What matters is that it's a high-quality dish that can be produced consistently.
A chef can start out with the intention of developing a signature dish, or he can let his customers' preferences guide him. The British website Run a Restaurant advises that a chef should use location and experience to his advantage. If he has spent time studying French cuisine, for example, he can apply those lessons to a signature dish--even if the dish is not a "French" dish. Or if his restaurant is in a seaside location, he could plan his dish around whatever is the most common local catch. Some chefs, however, insist that a signature dish is not something you can plan, but rather is the product of natural evolution. Award-winning Australian chef Philip Johnson, as quoted in The Courier Mail newspaper of Brisbane, says signature dishes develop almost by accident. Chef Meyjitte Boughenout agrees, telling the newspaper, "It's something that just happens--or not." He says a chef should be willing to try new things; a dish worthy of becoming a signature dish will identify itself.
However a signature dish was developed, it can become a valuable tool in advertising and promotion. (Think of the old Burger King slogan "Home of the Whopper"--that's an illustration of the signature dish concept.) If word gets around town that a particular restaurant serves the best chowder in town--or the best cavatelli or fajitas or whatever the place prides itself on--that will attract customers who might not otherwise be drawn.
Because of a signature dish's promotional value, pricing is a key consideration. The price should reflect the cost of the ingredients and the expertise of the preparation, but diners should also feel like they're getting their money's worth. A restaurant could have the best lobster anyone's ever tasted, but if it goes for $200 a plate, it may be worthless as a signature dish because very few people will buy it, try it--and talk about it. In most cases, a restaurateur wants people talking about the food, not the prices.
In a profile of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, the magazine Food and Wine traced the evolution of his signature dishes at his famous Beverly Hills restaurant, Spago. In the 1980s, for example, Puck helped kick off the gourmet pizza trend by serving a pizza topped with creme fraiche (a mild sour cream), smoked salmon and caviar. When goat cheese and thyme--fairly common in restaurant dishes today--were still considered novel ingredients, Puck combined them with angel-hair pasta for what became Spago's most popular pasta dish. These and other signature dishes built Spago's reputation as a place for innovative cuisine--and helped build Puck's culinary empire, which today includes other restaurants, a frozen food brand and a line of cooking products.