Writing menus for restaurants for menus is part art, part science. As crucial as a well-written menu is for a restaurant’s livelihood, it’s amazing how it seems to be an afterthought for many restaurant owners. You could have the best chefs creating the most inspired dishes, but the menu is what communicates your offerings and sells customers on buying them. Design has a powerful influence on their perceptions of value and quality.
The look of your in-restaurant menu is very important, but at least customers have already chosen to dine with you. If you have your menu posted outside for passerby to look at, or a digital version on your website, its presentation can make or break diners’ decisions to actually come in.
When recently scoping out new restaurants to visit here in Key West, I looked at the online menu of one establishment (which will not be named) that breaks several cardinal rules of menu design. The restaurant has great online reviews, but the menu’s design is so egregious that I have hesitated to go there. Here it is:
Maybe it’s supposed to kind of look like a fish? Who can say? There are four simple ways this restaurant could instantly improve the menu’s design for better clarity and professionalism:
1. Get rid of Comic Sans. As the director of a type-design company explained, “Selecting a font is like getting dressed. Just as one chooses an outfit according to the occasion, one decides on a font according to the kind of message you are seeking to convey.” On that note, the owners of bancomicsans.com call misuse of the font “analogous to showing up for a black tie event in a clown costume.” That may sound harsh, but, and I hate to be the one to tell you this, there is a whole movement centered on absolutely reviling Comic Sans. It is the punching bag of typefaces.
Avoid Comic Sans, even if you’re a family-friendly restaurant. Even Chuck E. Cheese uses a more professional-looking handwritten font. If you’re ever unsure, just use the handy website shouldiusecomicsans.com to decide, then use Times, Arial, or Georgia instead. Or, find and download a beautifully expressive font online.
2. Don’t use all caps. All caps are often misused for headers or emphasis, like how they were used here for the menu item names. Not only is it the written equivalent of yelling, its readability is actually lower. When you use all caps, you’re making customers work harder to read, and that can be an eyesore or a turnoff. I myself seem to unconsciously skip over text in all caps, seeking out more soothing lowercase text. Use bold, underline, a larger font size, a contrasting font, or a combination of two of those at the max for emphasis instead.
3. Proofread. There are a few errors here, but thankfully they’re pretty subtle. “Carmelized” should be “caramelized,” “puree pea” should be “puréed peas,” and “Meat Loaf” should be one word, assuming the restaurant isn’t serving the musician. Typos, errors, inconsistencies, and misspellings make your menu look sloppy and less professional. Misprints in descriptions can end up inscrutable, and typos in prices can even lead to arguments with customers or having to undercharge. Proofread carefully, use that godsend known as spellcheck, and leverage your team for another set of eyes to make sure your menu is perfect.
4. Use left or right alignment but not center. Center alignment can be alright for headers, but in this case, it forces the eye to jump around. The prices are also more difficult to see. Using left alignment instead would help guide customers’s eyes down the list, while using tabs to align the prices makes them easier to discern.
Using just Word, rather than Indesign or Photoshop, I copied and pasted the restaurant’s menu from the website and easily made some major improvements. What do you think?
Here’s the before and after. Which one, at first glance, is easier on your eyes?
Now, those four improvements – ditching Comic Sans and all caps, proofreading, and left-aligning – are all quick design wins. A bonus menu improvement idea would be to add description to a few of these menu items. As it is right now, I can guarantee you I would ask the server, “What comes with the New York Strip Steak?” If every customer has to ask, that slows the transaction and wastes servers’ time, when the answer could easily be in the menu. Furthermore, many of the menu items could use a bit of oomph. “Meatloaf with mashed potatoes” falls flat. Was this grandma’s recipe? Are there any unique ingredients in the meatloaf? Tell me how fresh and savory it is. Are the mashed potatoes made with Idaho potatoes? Being descriptive can dramatically increase customers’ perception of quality and increase their likelihood of purchase.
All in all, design matters. You’ve worked hard running your restaurant. A hastily created, poorly written menu sells your efforts short. Instead, showcase them with a thoughtfully crafted and well designed menu. Even a few keystrokes in Word can make a world of difference.
As a lover of food with past experience working in restaurants and design expertise, expert in design, menu writing design one of my specialties. Contact me today for professional insights on improving your menu!