The subtle science of menu writing


When you venture out to a new restaurant one of the first impressions you will have, aside from the decor, is the menu that you are handed once you are seated. While you may consider the dish options as the critical part of the menu, there are other factors at work that could influence your dining decision. As Anna Roth of The San Francisco Chronicle reports, the style of the menu, its colors, even the type of font used, all provide clues to the restaurant’s offerings and can steer you to items that the restaurant is keen to sell.

While the basic model for restaurant menus dates back nearly 200 years, a lot of research and testing has gone into menu design in recent years. Roth notes that “consultants like Gregg Rapp have been advising both major chains and mom-and-pop spots for 35 years against such blunders as putting dollar signs next to the price, which reminds people that they’re spending money.” A menu may not be the make-or-break feature of a restaurant, but its importance shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Chef Thomas McNaughton agrees. When discussing the problems that plagued his second California restaurant, Central Kitchen, he called out menu design as one of the issues. “The perception of a dish starts with how you write the menu item,” he says. McNaughton thinks overuse of the word allium on his onion-centric menu made the items sound pretentious and turned off potential diners. 

The article highlights the differences in menus between fine dining establishments and more down-to-earth restaurants. An analysis of over 100 years of menus found that fancier restaurants had fewer words on their menus, but the words often had several more syllables. Conversely, less expensive restaurants used more – and simpler – words to engage diners with stories about their dishes.

A few years ago the trend was to use no capital letters in menu items or descriptions, a practice I found annoying and one which may have negatively influenced my perception of the restaurant’s food. But even more than poor menu design, my pet peeve is the too-dark restaurant where you have to use your phone’s light to even see the menu. How much does the menu design influence what you think about a restaurant? 

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One Comment

  • sir_ken_g  on  October 12, 2016

    And it's not just menus.
    My wife – a writer editor – will judge a restaurant by all the graphics it uses.
    If they pay attention to graphics they probably pay attention to other things as well.

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