Mastering Menu Design

A menu is more than a list of what you sell, it is a marketing tool if you do it right. Make a great first impression and get more sales by focusing on the design and layout of your menu. By creating a great menu you reassure guests that they chose a great restaurant.

Your focus should be on how and where the items are placed to optimize profits. It should also be on design in order to make it easier to read, and as a tool to brand your business.

Here are some tips and tricks to create an effective and impressive menu of your own:

The Dilemma with Options

People have a tough time making decisions when they are given too many options. Find the sweet spot– not too many, and not too few (which is easier said than done). Ideally,  include one of each type of dish under a category. For example, one alfredo sauce pasta, one meat sauce pasta, and so on. This will speed up the time it takes a table to order, turning around tables faster.

The Use of Categories

You can choose to organize by section or category to further simplify the menu. For example, categorize items by the time of day it is eaten or the type of food. Create menu sections for specific ingredients used, such as chicken, veal or seafood. Consider adding a category for weekly or limited-time specials as well.

Common menu categories used in the Italian restaurant industry:
  • Pizza
  • Salads
  • Sandwiches
  • Soups
  • Calzones and Stromboli
  • Pasta
  • Seafood Entrees
  • Veal Entrees
  • Chicken Entrees
  • Starters/Appetizers
  • Side Orders/Sides
  • Beverages
  • Dessert
Other categories to consider:
  • Gluten-Free
  • Vegan
  • Burgers
  • Limited-Time Specials
  • Our Favorites
  • 'Build Your Own'
  • Kid's Meals
  • Catering items

Be Mindful with Placement

Put your more profitable and popular items higher up on the list. For example, you would put the pasta entrée section before the pizza section if it is more profitable. This can be said as well for individual items within a category or section on the menu. A general tip is to consider where eyes naturally look at first. Some people argue that it is the top left and right, and others argue it is the center. The Golden Triangle is often a term used in the industry to describe the key areas people look on a menu; the key areas would be the top left, top right and then the center.

Keep it Simple

Simplicity is key- it is important for it to be not too wordy and not too cluttered by design elements. Include bolded, enlarged headings or subcategories. Give plenty of whitespace or blank space around the sections of text. This will make it easier to find the section on the menu a customer is looking for. Less is definitely more when it comes to menu design elements because focus should be on the text itself.

The Challenge of using Photos

Be picky about photos you use– appetizing and accurate (no stock photos). It is better to use no photos at all than photos that aren’t the best quality. Keep in mind that it is easier to use high quality photos on digital menus, because you don’t have to worry about the way it will look printed out. Printers have a way of printing colored images inaccurate from the original image. If you choose to use photos sparingly on your menu, use a photo of a high profit margin item.

The Power of Words

Use descriptive words that evoke appetite, such as rich, tangy, decadent or buttery. At the same time, use words that reflect the brand of your business. For example, in an elegant dining area, you can use more complex words. If casual, keep it more basic.

Rethinking Price Listings

Consider getting rid of the dollar symbols next to the prices. It has been proven that this makes someone less likely to spend as much. Also, try to put prices next to descriptions that do not put them in a single column on the left. This encourages guests to skim to the least expensive without taking the time to briefly read what each option is.

Be On-Brand

Try to have the design of your menu follow your branding- colors, fonts, images. A consistent experience for the customer puts the cherry on top. That being said, use color and shapes around text sparingly and with intention to organize text or to highlight those items that are more profitable.

  • Color: Bright and warm colors like yellows, reds and oranges increase customer appetite and excitement. Keep colors consistent and in-line with your restaurant theme. Be mindful of colors that complement each other well and ones that don't.
  • Font: Item names should be slightly larger than prices and bolded to stand out.
  • Images: Use no more than two high quality images on your menu, ideally of the items that are popular and highly profitable.

Below is an example of a simple, well designed menu for a more upscale Italian restaurant:

Traditional vs. Digital Menus

Some guests prefer a physical copy of your menu while some will prefer to just pull it up on their smartphone device. Try to find a way to offer both. Ideally, your digital menu should be on your website in HTML format (typed out directly onto the webpage), however pdfs work as well. With the digital copy, many restaurants make for easy viewing by printing out a QR Code for customers to scan.

Going Digital

If you have a large takeout or delivery business, you should have a solid digital menu. Consider making your digital menu even more simplified than your physical one- without the use of fancy names, long descriptions, etc. People don’t have the patience to scroll and scroll until they find what they are looking for.

Need to Revamp your Menu?

Professional design doesn’t have to be hard and expensive anymore with tools that have come out created for non-designers to make stunning work themselves. Create your menu on easy-to-use sites that have a free option for everyone. 

Here are some to look into:

Remember, your menu says a lot about your restaurant and sets expectations for your food. Create an inspired menu using some of these tips and you'll see how it impacts your sales.