I used to be a much bigger fan of tasting menus than I am now. In recent years, I've leaned toward ordering the prix fixe and a la carte instead at many top tier restaurants such as Jean Georges, Daniel, Le Bernardin, and Marea. When you save up for a splurge at a fine dining restaurant, it's natural to want to be able to get as much out of the experience as possible. But the truth is that many chefs don't design dishes to be part of a tasting menu, and many tasting menus are mere afterthoughts.
To me there are really 4 kinds of tasting menus.
1. The ones at tasting menu only restaurants. Examples from the best restaurants in NYC include Eleven Madison Park, The Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Per Se. They do it right because that's the only thing they focus on. The menu is planned and well crafted.
2. Seasonal tasting menus featuring dishes that are not on the regular menu. They may not be the sole focus, but there's enough attention dedicated to them and it usually highlights additional ambition and care on the part of the chef. Examples of fine restaurants offering these kinds of tasting menus in NYC include Jean Georges, Kyo Ya, Tocqueville, Gramercy Tavern, Louro, and many others.
3. A selection of signature dishes from over the course of the restaurant's lifetime. These will often come from successful, ambitious restaurants that are continuously innovating but have dishes that regulars just continue to ask for. Examples include the vault at WD-50, the signature tasting menu at Jean Georges, and the 25th anniversary tasting menu at Alain Ducasse restaurants.
4. Tasting menus slapped together from items already on the menu. Usually used to appease people who can't decide or for people who may not be able to frequent the restaurant often and so want to "taste" as much as possible in one sitting.
5. There's also in fact a fifth kind, which is the fake tasting menu. Many restaurants take a 3 or 4 course prix fixe and call it a tasting menu to attract diners.
The 4th kind of tasting menu is the one that I see most often in restaurants nowadays, and is the one that I have the most problem with. Often, the restaurant will try to disguise these tasting menus as the 3rd kind of tasting menu, saying that these are the standout dishes on the menu. But if they are in fact so much better, what's the point of the other items on the menu? In the words of Marco Pierre White, "When I go to a restaurant, I want a starter, a main, and a pudding. If I like the food, I'll come back and try the rest of the menu."
More often than not, the choices on those tasting menus are not in fact the best, but rather the safest to market to indecisive eaters and easiest to divide into smaller tasting menu sized portions. If you are likely to know what you like by looking at a menu, my recommendation is to order it a la carte or as part of a prix fixe. Sometimes people won't be as adventurous and choose as boldly as certain items on some tasting menus. But if you trust the quality of the restaurant (there's so much research out there that can be done nowadays), that shouldn't be a problem. And if you have a huge appetite like I do, you can just add dishes a la carte. Why only have a menu of two-bite tastes of dishes that were designed to be bigger?
I'm not against tasting menus. It's just that they're not all created equal. You can't just go into a restaurant, order the tasting menu, and assume that the chef has specially put together a menu of his best stuff. A lot of times, especially if the tasting menu is composed entirely of dishes from the regular menu, you're not getting the best, most exciting things that are coming out of the kitchen.