Technically spelled "à la carte," this French term is used on restaurant menus to indicate that each item is priced seperately. Most menus, of course, have different prices for different dishes, but on an a la carte menu, prices are for individual components of a dish. An example may help:
"Regular" or, if you're pretentious, "Prix Fixe" menus have items like:
Shrimp platter with garlic fried shrimp, jumbo tiger shrimp, and fried butterfly shrimp, with a side order of baked potato.... $19.99
By contrast, an A La Carte menu would have a section like:
A La Carte Menu, Shrimp Section:
- Garlic Fried Shrimp.........$2 for 4
- Jumbo Tiger Shrimp..........$3 for 4
- Butterfly Shrimp............$3 for 6
- ... et cetera ...
A la carte then, is like a choose your own adventure menu. You pick the components, they put them together. This may, to the uninitiated, seem like an absolutely fabulous idea, and one might wonder why a la carte menus are the exception rather than the rule.
The primary reason for this is that chefs like to create balanced, complementary dishes -- if they didn't they wouldn't be chefs -- and a la carte takes the power out of their hands to some extent. To put it another way, diners might not be, and aren't expected to be, as skilled at choosing the menu items that will go well together, it's the restaurant's job to do that for you; if you are just going to do it yourself, you've given up one of the chief bonuses of eating out.