Top tips for menu design

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. It is also a major marketing tool, expressing the personality of the venue, focusing on the concept and operations, promoting profitability and keeping your brand in your customer’s mind.

By Jeremy Ryland


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.


Your menu is part of the first impressions and should convey who you are and what you are about. When designing your menu you should consider the environment you are in. Most of a typical restaurant’s business comes from locals living in a 10-minute drive away. Consider your competition.


·      What can my restaurant menu offer that others in the area do not?

·      What menu items do we have in common?

·      How does our pricing match up?

·      Does my menu offer more variety than theirs?


As before, your menu should reflect your restaurant’s personality. Are you relaxed and casual? Or intimate and sophisticated? Are you great value or a little more expensive and high quality? The design should mimic the dining experience; arrange dishes in order of selection. Place your best selling items or those you want to focus on in the "sweet spots". When we look at a menu we typically look at the middle first, then to the top right, and then over to the top left – menu engineers call this "The Golden Triangle". Put your highest margin dishes in these prominent spots. Highlight the items you want to see with bolder print, text boxes and empty space around them.


The colours used can affect what people order. Green implies fresh, yellow catches attention, whilst red encourages action to buy. Blue is not a good food colour – and too much colour is a turn-off.


Descriptions are important. There is a trend today towards single ingredient lists – "chicken, kale, squid ink". This can confuse the diner and usually requires explanation to avoid disappointment. It is also very clinical and does not sell the experience. It is important to feed people’s imagination, as well as explain what they are buying. Provide a short description of the dish and include any allergens - "braised chicken with tofu and peanuts on a bed of rice noodles". Avoid superlatives like "the world’s best sandwich" which can’t be true! But adjectives like "sun-dried", "free-range" and "line-caught" are positive.


And "tell a story" about the dishes you want to sell more of – longer descriptions will make diners focus on that item. Research reveals that items described in a more beautiful way are more appealing and popular. Descriptive menu labels raise sales by 27 per cent, compared to food items without descriptors. The description should build the diners anticipation and make the salivary juices flow! And brand names also help sales: "Bangalow Sweet Pork Ribs, marinated in our own homemade spicy Bundaberg Rum sauce, slow cooked for seven hours until tender and juicy, served with caraway seed, cabbage and apple slaw".


Diners will subconsciously select the top two items in each section more often, so make these your higher margin dishes. And some people tend to go for the last item, so make this cost effective as well.


Many people today want smaller dishes: offer a variety of portion sizes. And if you have a range of good desserts, put them on the main menu. Many people want just two dishes – so like to see what’s for dessert as well as entrée.


Pricing: the dollar sign should be avoided as it reminds people they are spending money. Prices that end in ".99" cents signify value but not quality. Leaving the cents off makes the menu cleaner, simpler and reduces the emphasis on price. So 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 putting a couple of expensive items on the menu makes everything else look like good value!


Common problems:


·      Menus that are too big, too long and arduous to read. Big menus make the diner stressed and unable to choose. It is best to have no more than seven dishes in each section.


·      Print too small to read or in a colour that is hard to see. Print too close together and or using a font too difficult to read. Remember, many of your diners need glasses to read.


·      Spelling mistakes: more common than you imagine!


·      Specialities and key items not prominent: highlight the important dishes.


·      Dirty, torn or damaged menus: don’t do much for your image or say much about the quality of the kitchen!


Menus are an important branding tool and the psychology of menu design is backed by science and research. Remember they are designed to sell your products. Make it easy for the diner. Don’t make them so creative and ambiguous that they are hard to read or understand. They should be clean, easy to read, tell a story and build anticipation about the experience.


Bon appetite!