The secrets behind restaurant menus


A good menu is vital to the success of a restaurant. Like a theatre programme, it not only helps the guest to select the right dishes but it also builds anticipation.


By Jeremy Ryland


Since the birth of the modern restaurant in the late 1700’s, the menu has evolved as a guide to what to eat and how much it will cost you. The development of the restaurant was assisted by the French Revolution in 1789 when many chefs found themselves without employment, so set up their own restaurants and is a significant part of social history. For the first time, people were able to eat whatever and whenever they wanted, knowing in advance how much the meal would cost. Prior to this, people simply ate what was offered at taverns or banquets.


Like much of the terminology of cuisine, the word menu originates in France and means “resume”. The original menus were on chalkboards – a carte in French – hence a la carte or according to the board.

 Menu from the Summit Restaurant - Sydney, 1971

Menus are also historical documents showing how our palates have evolved and how pricing has changed. The menu above from the Summit Restaurant in Sydney from 1971 shows the classic format of appetisers, entrees, seafood, grills and side salads. It’s been a long time since you were able to get a main course for under $4!


Today's menus are quite varied from blackboards to booklets and iPads. The menu is the primary representation of the restaurant.  It tells exactly who you are and what you hope to convey – it is your brand summary. A dirty, torn menu does not give a good impression!


Menu design can be quite an art and is carefully constructed to persuade you into making certain decisions predominantly aimed at spending more money. The quality of the material, the colours used, the size of the text and layout can all affect what we order.


When we look at a menu, we typically look at the middle first then to the top right and then over the top left – so this is where the highest margin dishes should be. By removing the dollar sign and having whole numbers – ie: “5” instead of “$4.99” – we take away the emphasis on cost and can increase spending. And big menus can make us stressed, so clever restaurateurs list no more than seven dishes in each section so we have options without being overwhelmed.


Menus are an important branding tool and the psychology of menu design is backed by science and research. They should be clean, easy to read, tell a story and build anticipation about the experience.


Thanks to Executive Chef Darren Templeman from O Bar and Dining in Sydney for lending us the 1971 Summit Restaurant's menu.