Surprisingly, one of the most common problems of restaurants is its menu. Whether it’s the design or the number of pages the menu has, it’s certain that menus can be a tricky game to play.

Even Chef Gordon Ramsay criticizes the appearance of restaurant menus when they’re just too long and complicated!

It’s more common to hear tips on how to decorate your restaurant than design your menu, which is why some owners think theirs are completely fine so long as they present their dishes. But hiring professional designers and/or writers to do the job for you add only to the cost – sometimes it’s best that you do things yourself, right?

So, what does it take to create a beautiful menu that your customers will understand and remember?

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1. Check your competition

Before designing your menu, check out what you’re up against, especially when they’re in your vicinity. It helps you determine the common factors in the menus’ appearances and prices, and knowing these helps you visualize how yours will be different.

Your menu doesn’t have to be completely different from everyone else’s to stand out – as Lidia Bastianich says, “Classics works for a reason”. There will always be similar elements like font faces and the order of listing, but yours must stand out with something that adds to these common elements. And knowing how your competition does their thing avoids accidentally-similar styles, too!

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2. Plot your menu out

A study shows that the much-believed “sweet spots” in a menu – that is, the middle and upper right-hand corner – doesn’t exist and customers read menus like they do with books (top to bottom, left to right). Whether you choose to believe this or not, it’s still wise to design the layout like a well-sectioned list. It makes it easy for your customers to find what they want if your menu is structured properly.

As a guide, follow the usual order of a multicourse meal. Start with appetizers first, or the lightest dishes, then soups/salads. The lighter course (usually the fish and vegetable course) are next, then your main course dishes, then desserts, and drinks. Section them off properly, and label each section visibly to let your customers know what section are they looking at presently.

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3. Plan the appearance

Like how a dish’s appearance can affect the appetite, the menu’s appearance affects how people can read it and attribute it to your restaurant’s overall theme. After all, you don’t want a fancy Italian restaurant looking menu when your theme is a Spanish bistro! There are three key elements to this:

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  • Font - Your menu is much like a poster or a resume – you can use fonts to emphasize your point, but overdoing it is just pure clutter. And it doesn’t lend well to your customers’ ability to read your menu properly. The basic rule of any typography-related product is to limit yourself to 2-3 fonts: a bolder font for titles, then it gets simpler as you move to the body.Some themes and restaurant types also have an associated font type to help drive the theme. For example, a high-end restaurant may use calligraphy-style fonts for their titles (i.e. Lavender Script, Pacifico Font), while more rustic themes may go for “Western” or “Eroded” fonts (i.e. The Dead Saloon, Nashville)There are still a lot more to go on about the basics of typography, such as spacing and combining fonts, but the base points are that the fonts for titles must let them stand out, while the font for descriptions must be readable. And never use these five fonts, unless you want to look amateurish (and get a lot of your younger customers to judge you)!
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  • Color - An essential part of your design is the colors you use, even with your menus. Aside from the obvious pairing of light background to the dark font or vice versa, your colors should be in line with your theme. For example, Italian restaurants go for the classic combo of green, red, and yellow (or white), while Japanese restaurants have red, black, and maybe even gold.If your restaurant has no specific theme, you can do either of the two: look at your logo’s color scheme, or pick your palette from your decor. The endpoint is that your menu’s color scheme should always tie back to your restaurant. Always follow the rules for picking color schemes; you don’t want to have a mismatched set that isn’t pleasing to the eyes!
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  • Decorations - Embellishments look nice in text-heavy environments such as menus. They prevent the whole page from looking drab and boring, and can even draw attention depending on where they are placed. However, you shouldn’t over-decorate your menus. It only creates a busy environment and distracts your customers, especially if there’s no real connection.As a rule of thumb only put decorations that matter, and where they are needed. This includes any banners, pictures, and symbols. Banners are useful for emphasizing the section names of your menu (i.e. “Appetizers”, “Desserts”) or the names of your specials. Lines, arrows, and/or boxes grab attention, so put them with the ones you want to be spotlighted.Images should only be included if they’re taken properly with the rules of food photography. Use them sparingly – your customers do not need to know what each dish looks like, especially if they are common food such as spaghetti or cheese pizza. Many restaurants even opt out of photos of their dishes in their menus, which you can consider, too.Symbols such as money signs, indicators of bestsellers or special-type food (i.e. vegan choices) must also be used only when they are needed. A study revealed that people spend more when there is no presence of money signs in the menu, which is something you can consider for your menu as well. Ditch those dollar signs!
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4. Draw to the specials

There are specials on your menu for a reason: they are your restaurant’s best dishes, the ones you would highly recommend to anyone. Or they might be the dishes that are unlike your usual dishes: they might be a healthier choice, are spicier than most of the dishes, or have alternative ingredients. If they’re packed like the rest of your dishes, it’s likely that people will pass them over for not being remarkable.

Use the previous tips to emphasize them. Not only will your customers’ eyes be drawn to them in the span of the 100 seconds they spend reading your menu, their special appearance will provide visual breaks for your customers. Of course, don’t over-emphasize them – your customers will think that you’re pushing it too much in their faces, and they might not pay attention to it.

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5. Create excitement

Your menu is how you market your dishes to your customers without doing it to yourself. It’s important that you at least put in your dishes’ names and descriptions in a way that your customers are enticed to try them out for themselves and see if they’re good. Not only that, they would want to know what exactly are they eating, in case they have food allergies (or want to put it in their IG post’s description).

In choosing names for your dishes, try to keep it simple, and if they’re foreign, authentic. Leave the ingredients in the description to avoid redundancy. Fish Parmigiana sounds a whole lot better than Fish Fillet with Tomato Sauce, Mozzarella, and Parmesan, after all.

Your description should talk about the ingredients, and describe them to excite your customer’s appetite. Who wouldn’t want to hear about a “saucy mash of chili, tomatoes, onions, pepper, and various herbs, laid on top of perfectly-prepped pig”, also known as a Texas Barbeque Pork? Describing dishes can be done in three different ways, so choose the one you prefer the most.

Still, it’s best to show some restraint when describing or naming. Talk to your customers through your descriptions but in their own vocabulary. They wouldn’t know what a “sous-vided arctic char” is unless they’re absolute foodies (or fans of MasterChef US and watches Season 3), so your menu will only sound pretentious to them. Keep it simple, straightforward, but descriptive enough in 1-2 sentences.

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6. Don’t overstuff!

Sometimes you just have a lot of dishes to present to your customers, and you want them to know everything in your menu. Don’t! A jam-packed menu makes customers confused on where to start, and it’s aggravating to your servers to have to wait forever for your customers to finish ordering. It also means more ingredients to buy, more dishes to produce, and longer serving time. In short, more stress.

It’s wise to keep your menu under 50 items, especially if your restaurant has limited staff and has a small kitchen area. If you have dishes that you only serve during lunch hours or dinner hours, consider making a separate menu for both – that way, you can reduce your menu size even further.

If you have dishes that are obsolete, pull them out of the menu. You can gain a new space for a menu update that way without sacrificing space issues.

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7. Proofread your menu

It’s highly important that you proofread your menu before you have it ready for public eyes. You might accidentally make some of your dishes sound disgusting or rancid (i.e. Michael’s Beer Steamed Muscles instead of Mussels… ew), or you might duplicate dishes without noticing it. If you commit a lot of spelling and grammar mistakes on your menu, you risk being the laughing stock of everyone else.

Run your menu through someone with a good command of the English language, or if you haven’t got the time to wait, use spellcheckers. It’s readily available even in Microsoft Word – if your words are underlined in a red line, it means it’s spelled wrong and Word will give you suggestions for the right spelling. Still, run it through with someone – sometimes a word is spelled right but isn’t the proper one.

There are also other proofreading tools available online if you want to do it yourself. Just choose whichever website you prefer, enter your menu, and let the proofreader do its thing.

Believe it or not, your menu design is one of the 8 details for running a good restaurant. There is so much more to managing and running a restaurant that owes to its success. To learn more about the other details, check out this infographic at Panda Paper Roll!

With these menu designing tips, you’re sure to tick off one of the key details for running a good restaurant. How did your designs fare out? Do you have any more tips that you discovered along the way? Share them in the comments!

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