The ideal restaurant menu offers a balance of unique dishes and old favorites. Consider the basic burger. You can offer it in classic form—plain or with American cheese. You can also offer a unique version, one that fits with your restaurant theme, such as topping the burger with guacamole and pepper jack cheese in a Mexican restaurant.
But how you present your dishes in print can be just as important as what your server delivers to your customers' tables. They have to find that great dish on your menu before they can enjoy it. A great restaurant menu isn't just a list of dishes you offer. It should be a sales tool.
Check Out the Competition
Depending on the size of the city or town you're situated in, a customer's choice can come down to your place at one corner of the block and another establishment just two blocks over. Eight out of 10 diners choose a restaurant within 10 minutes from home so a good rule of thumb is to know what other restaurants within 10 minutes from your door are doing.
Take a little time to find out what those other guys are up to with their menus. You want diners to come through your door, not one of the others. Assess prices, themes, and cuisine. Find out when they typically offer to-die-for specials. Then design your menu to go head to head with theirs...and win. Consider offering something they don't.
Your Menu Should Be a Manageable Size
Avoid the temptation to offer a huge selection of items or you'll inevitably be tossing food at the end of the night. Also, consider what your restaurant kitchen is capable of producing. Are there enough stations to offer grilled items, sautéed dishes, salads, soups, and baked goods?
Manageability also means not overwhelming your customers with choices. Too many options can confuse people, or worse, it might even subconsciously stress them a little. Try to keep your dishes to seven or eight in each category or section.
Your Menu Should Be Easy to Read
Hard-to-read fonts and too much text can make it difficult for patrons to take in a list of your offerings. Again, you don't want to overwhelm them. Keep your menu design simple and avoid using too much culinary jargon. Say bite-sized hors d'oeuvres rather than amuse-bouche. If your restaurant is elegant and French, you can always use the amuse-bouche in the description, but keep the item caption simple.
A menu with print so small that it that makes your diners squint is definitely a turnoff, as is one that's so big it's clumsy to handle.
Use a Little Psychology
Studies have shown that diners exhibit some common behaviors when they're looking at menus. If you place your most expensive, top-quality entree front and center, they'll glance at that, then their gazes will immediately drop to whatever you've listed right beneath that entree, perhaps to something they might more easily afford.
This is a good place to put a menu item that you want to push, perhaps one that will make you a little money. It's more or less what your customers will see first.
Diners aren't very inclined to look at the back of a menu—not first, not last, and sometimes not ever. Don't hide the dishes you want to push in an area that's not likely to be read. The same rule applies to the lower-left corner of the left side of the page if your menu is one that opens up. These might be good places for kiddie meals.
And make good use of color. Choose those that have been shown in studies to have certain psychological effects. Yellow is said to grab a viewer's attention. Some reviews have indicated that red makes a diner hungry...and hungry is good.
Blue is iffy. It's said to calm people but you want your guests to devour and rave about your food so you can seat your next customers. You don't want them sitting there idly picking at their plates for hours.
You might also want to avoid the use of columns. Diners tend to focus on price when a menu is laid out this way...then select the cheapest entree on the list. And skip the dollar signs. They tend to have a negative subliminal effect.
Creative Writing Goes a Long Way
Maybe your primo appetizer is Cannelloni Ala Milanese. You resist the temptation to put it dead center of the appetizer page and list it just beneath the big-ticket item you've placed there. OK, you have your diners' attention. Now what? Why would they want to try this dish?
Because in addition to placing it just so, you're going to make it sound to-die-for. Sure, you can say in the description, "Crepes filled with chicken, veal, beef, ricotta cheese, and spinach. Topped with marinara sauce." Or you can mention that the meats are freshly ground. You can say that the crepes are "stuffed," not just filled. The sauce doesn't just come with. The crepes are glazed with it.
Go ahead, go over the top. If descriptive writing isn't your thing, consider hiring a professional copywriter to help you with this part. Make use of words like "renowned." If it's an old family recipe, say so and laud your grandmother. If she grew up in Philadelphia, it's OK to tag the dish as "Philadelphia Cannelloni." Studies have also shown that regional references can tug on a diner's interest.
Your Restaurant Menu Should Be Versatile
Now you must manage your inventory. No item on your menu should stand alone. If you offer a fresh lobster roll, be sure to include lobster in other dishes as well. Otherwise, the lobster meat will end up spoiling if you don’t sell any lobster rolls, and throwing food away in a restaurant kitchen is akin to throwing money away.
Make Sure You Have the Correct Food Cost
Each item on your restaurant menu should be priced to reflect its food cost, both to keep profits up and offer affordable prices to your customers. Know the actual amount it costs you to make each dish. Pricey ingredients like that lobster make for a pricey menu.
This suggestion doesn’t mean that the food you order should be the cheapest available because the quality is the most important aspect of creating menu items. But you should try to balance high and low food costs for a reasonable profit margin.
Keep It Simple
While you're about setting prices, keep that pricing simple. Some experts think that people react more favorably to $22 than $21.99. Others think that $21.99 prompts diners into spending less, and a Cornell University study found that spelling prices out had a positive effect, prompting customers to spend more, as in "twenty-two dollars." Maybe they don't register price when they don't actually see numbers.
Items Should Be Easy to Prepare
Nothing will bog a restaurant kitchen down faster during the dinner rush than complex menu items that take a long time to prepare. Menu items should be one of two things: easy to prepare on the spot, such as by sautéeing or grilling, or easy to prepare ahead of time and reheat. Think lasagna, cooked pasta, and prime rib.
Know When to Update Your Restaurant Menu
No menu should be set in stone—or laminated to exist into perpetuity—ever. Keep your food costs in check by updating your menu at least once a year.
You don't have to rewrite the whole menu at once. Regular customers will be disappointed if they come in expecting their favorites and they're no longer on the menu. You don't want that. Just make sure prices are where they should be and assess menu items so that you can nix any that aren’t selling.
Know When to Offer Special Menus
Busy holidays like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day often merit a special prix fixe menu to prevent the kitchen from being in the weeds the entire night. A prix fixe menu limits the number of items available at a given time, making it easier for the kitchen to turn out a large number of meals in a short span.
A prix fixe menu can also act as a great promotion during slow times. Special two-for-one prix fixe menus or a wine-tasting prix fixe menu can get people through the door, even during hard economic times.
Have you ever offered “fresh muscles” or “chicken and broccoli Alfred?" Have a second or third set of eyes check for typos before you print your menus, including your nightly specials.
Last But Not Least—Stay Within the Law
Yes, there are laws for menus in many states. These "Truth in Menu" statutes want you to be very sure that what you say about an entree is indeed true. If you want to say that a dish is "locally sourced," confirm first that it didn't actually come from Norway when you're situated in New England. Another tricky phrase is "farm-raised." Don't say it is if you're not sure.
Resist the urge to embellish unless you know you can back up what you say. This includes taking a supplier's word for it. And if you include photos, make very sure that the entree you present looks as advertised.