How to create a restaurant menu: The complete guide

Your menu is a key ingredient in the success of your restaurant. It is vital that it tempts passers-by through your doors, and encourages diners to spend, spend, spend. When you’ve planned out all of your delicious dishes, you need to design a menu that really sells your food to your customers and increases anticipation for their meal.

With this guide, we intend to show you how to create a restaurant menu, with helpful tips and insights throughout. We’ll consider all of the aspects of the process, including design and copy, creating an online menu, printing your menu, and how and where to display it.

What should I do before I start designing my menu?

Designing a menu

Before you begin the design process, it’s worth doing some research and planning, which will ensure that you don’t waste any resources in the long run. It will also give you a better idea of what you are setting out to accomplish with your menu.

Think about your budget

Creating a new restaurant menu may require you to employ some professional services, like printing and graphic design. Before you go ahead, it’s a good idea to establish a budget for the project, so you don’t end up overspending in the future.

You also need to get the balance right: there’s no point blowing the majority of your funds on design work, only for a poor print job to ruin your menu.

Having a figure in mind will also allow you to price up these services to find one that meets your budget. Doing some initial research into the fees for these services won’t harm either, as it will give you a rough idea about what to expect further down the line.

Look at your idols and competitors

You should also begin to think about what kind of menu you are aspiring to create. Think about some of your own favourite restaurants or those that you admire: what type of menus do they have? Is there anything about their menus that you really like? What aspects would you do differently or improve? Ask the same questions about competitors or other local restaurants, as the answers you come up with may inform how you approach your new menu design.

How to design your menu

Menu Design

© Basheer Tomelicence

When you have decided what items you are going to include, and what direction that you want to take your menu, you can begin the menu design process. There isn’t a wrong way to approach this stage, but we’ve come up with a few considerations you might want to think about as you create your menu.

Think about the impression you want to create

It’s worth considering what kind of impression you want your new menu design to create. For example, if you have aspirations of creating a fine-dining atmosphere, a minimalistic design with a simple, classy font will best represent this. On the other hand, if you really want to celebrate your restaurant’s fun side, you could opt for a design full of bright colours, arty images, and unconventional fonts. Make sure that your design ideas are in-line with the ambiance that you are trying to maintain or create.

Get the layout and sequencing of the menu sections right

There was once age-old wisdom among restauranteurs that there was a ‘sweet spot’ where people would cast their eye to a certain place on the page first, and scan the rest of the menu from there. However, a study by Prof Sybil Yang, of San Francisco State University, discovered that this was incorrect, and people were more likely to read the pages like a book — from left to right, top to bottom. This should inform your choice of restaurant menu sections.

Following the findings of this study, it makes most sense to present the sections of your restaurant menu in a progression that reflects the natural flow of the courses in a meal. This means that starters and appetisers should come first, followed by your mains afterwards (and maybe dessert last). If you have sections that fall outside the main courses, such as sharing dishes, sundries, or side portions, you can place them near to the course which is more closely related. For example, a section of sharing appetisers could follow regular appetisers, or a side portions could be paired with main courses, where they are more likely to be ordered.

Think ahead to avoid price scanning

The act of price scanning refers to when a customer is able to easily look down your dish prices and spot which ones are more expensive and which are the cheapest, which is something you need to keep in mind when considering how to create a menu design.

In an ideal world, you want your diners to make their choices based on impulse and hunger, rather than their wallet, so making some subtle design choices can make price scanning more difficult.

There are a few things that you can do to achieve this, such as:

  • Ensuring that dish prices are not aligned in your menu format, as doing so is presenting a customer with a pre-made checklist for price scanning. Staggered pricing means the eye has to wander across the page to seek out each individual figure.
  • Try out some non-traditional pricing, such as removing the currency symbol (9.95) or writing to one decimal place (9.5). This detaches diners from the thought of cold, hard cash.
  • Give the price less visual importance by using a subtler colour and font to the name and description of the item. This way, the eye will be less immediately drawn to the price.
  • Avoid just listing items by price from low to high or vice versa, as this makes it even easier to price scan. Try to keep your items mixed in order.

Merchandise your dishes

It’s possible to use merchandising techniques to increase the profitability of your menu design by pushing cost-effective dishes that that are cheap to produce, such as soups, pizzas, and pastas, but have the best margin of profit when sold. Simply by placing dishes such as these together near the top of their respective menu categories, you can increase the amount of exposure they have to the browsing customer.

Another effective way to merchandise these menu items is to use menu format techniques, such as boxes, pictures, and other visual features to increase their visibility. By putting individual or groups of cost-effective dishes within an outline or near to a picture, you are drawing the eye of the customer to their location and highlighting them over the other less profitable dishes on your menu. Other visual features, such as placing a ‘chef’s recommendation’ or ‘house specialty’ symbol, near to the desired items can also have the same effect.

You can also employ anchoring to make your most profitable items look like they offer more value. This involves placing some high-value dishes among some of your more cost-effective ones, in an effort to drive interest towards the more profitable items. The thought behind it is if someone looks at the expensive item (the anchor) and is put off by the price, the cheaper options on either side suddenly seem like a more appealing choice. This doesn’t always work, but it can prove to be successful with many customers.

Use photos sparingly

Though you may be tempted to think that photos of your dishes can give your customers a better idea of what you are offering, they are mostly associated with junk-mail takeaway menus and chain restaurants offering pre-made food.

Food images are difficult to get right as they need to be lit and photographed in a way that makes them look tasty. It will cost a lot of money if you hire a professional to take the pictures for you, and doing it yourself can often leave your dishes looking unappetising and your menu design appearing rather amateurish.

Instead, focus on writing exceptional dish descriptions so that your customers can visualise what they are ordering. If you believe that your menu definitely needs some visual flair, consider using illustrations, which can be a lot more appealing than photos.

Choose a suitable typography

There are a few things to remember when it comes to typography as you create your restaurant menu. First and foremost, your menu should be clearly legible so that your customers can easily browse your range of dishes. This means that you should avoid any typefaces that make this difficult, like fancy curled script or fonts designed to imitate handwriting — diners will not appreciate having to spend time deciphering what is included in a dish when all they want to do is order.

You also need to bear in mind that the font will be making a major contribution to the personality you are trying to communicate for your restaurant. As the menu is such a crucial tool in the restaurant environment, your choice will have a huge impact on how customers perceive your establishment, so it should reflect exactly how you want to be perceived. The typography will be key part of your brand, so it really does need some extra thought.

To help you out, we’ve included a few types of font that you could opt for below and the atmosphere that they create:

Typography style Atmosphere created
Old style serif Formal, classic, elegant
Transitional serif Modern, contemporary, plain
Modern serif Authoritative, impactful, bold
Sans serif Simple, minimal, modern
Slab serif Bold, solid, attention-grabbing
Script Classy, fancy, prestigious
Novelty Mood can vary depending on font. Take care not to overuse in your menu.

While it isn’t recommended that you go overboard, using more than one typeface is an effective way to differentiate between features of your menu, such as titles, names of the dishes, or descriptions. Doing so can make the pages a little bit easier to navigate for your customers.

Decide upon a colour scheme

Like your typography, colour choices on your menu will reflect heavily on the personality your restaurant communicates to your customers. They should match the branding and style of your restaurant décor if possible, so that diners feel more immersed in the dining experience you are offering. You can also use colours to flavour your menu’s layout and focus attention on your profitable dishes.

If your establishment has a theme or a particular target audience that you are trying to attract, this could well affect your choice of colour scheme. For example, a Mexican restaurant would probably choose to go with some warm, earthy colours to reflect the food that is served. Likewise, an Italian eatery might use rustic reds and greens, or a seafood restaurant could go for traditional maritime colours like blue and white.

It’s also worthwhile taking into account the colour psychology that can influence visitors. While not an exact science, it is thought that certain shades can have an effect on how diners behave. Take, for instance, the consistent use of red throughout fast-food branding — the colour is seen to promote increased appetite and urgency through its intensity, encouraging people to eat more and at an increased speed.

We’ve listed a few colours and a summary of their perceived effects below:

  • Red: Stimulates conversation and appetite, encourages impulse eating. This colour is fine for use in fast food restaurants, but those going for a more upmarket may want to limit it to the accents on their menu.
  • Blue: Calming, neutral. Thought to supress appetite, meaning that it is fairly uncommon to see blue as the main colour of a restaurant or the menu. Can be used as an accent colour.
  • Orange: Energising and bold, it also encourages impulsivity. A popular choice in restaurants where customers might want to try something new.
  • Yellow: Cheerful in small doses, but when used in force can cause uneasiness. Similar to red, it is often used in fast-food environments to encourage quick turnaround. Popular accent colour.
  • Green: Relaxing, healthy, and natural. Great for communicating the freshness of food on offer and healthy options. Can be used to add a wholesome feel to a menu.
  • Brown: Earthy, healthy, and organic. Rich browns can be combined with colours like green and deep red on a menu to create a feeling of trust and a quality dining experience.

Consider labelling your menu

Menu labelling is the practice of adding extra details alongside the name, price, and description of a dish. Common labels can refer to nutritional information, vegetarian options, spiciness levels, allergies, and gluten content, among many others. Such labels give the customer more information about the dish, allowing them to make an accurate decision as to whether it is a suitable choice.

While some of these labels are completely optional for restaurants, there are some that are a requirement of UK food labelling laws, these being the name of the food, any allergenic ingredients, and a declaration as to whether it contains meat. All restaurants are required to display these clearly somewhere so customers can view them, with most choosing to put them on their menu.

Including other labels outside of those legally required is up to you, and it may depend on what type of restaurant you own or who your clientele is. For example, if you serve food that ranges in levels of spiciness, like a curry house, you will almost definitely want to include those levels on your menu, allowing customers to make a safe choice and not limiting your reach to those who only like spicy food.

Another example can be found in giving specific nutritional or calorie information, which may be a necessity for a restaurant that specialises in preparing healthy food, or one that caters to a broad clientele containing those who might need to monitor what they eat. Stating whether a food is gluten-free or under 600 calories is a step many establishments are now taking in response to the attention these issues are now receiving from the public.

While providing so many details might sound like it will eat up a lot of space on the pages of your menu, you can minimise this by using a key with symbols to represent certain labels. For example, you might choose a (V) symbol to indicate a vegetarian choice. To show levels of spiciness, you might want to use a tiered system — one chilli for mild, two for spicy, three for hot, and so forth. You can simply include a key at the start or end of your menu for people to refer to.

The dessert menu: included or separate?

This is a question that most restaurant owners are faced with — whether to include the desserts on the main menu or have them separately — and there are arguments to be made in favour of both formats.

Some say a combined main and dessert menu increases the chance that a customer will spot a sweet early on and keep it in mind or even order it alongside their main meal. Others argue that a separate menu puts less focus on a dessert when first ordering, increasing the chances that you will order an appetiser. It also gives the waiting staff a chance to upsell at the end of the meal.

There isn’t hard evidence that either format works better than the other, and what may work best for one establishment may not for another. You may need to road test your chosen method for a while, then switch things up if you are not making enough sales from your desserts section.

Consider doing the design yourself

This will depend on the budget that you have available to you and how confident you are in producing your own unique look, but with the sophisticated technology and software available today, it is possible to produce your own restaurant menu without the need of any professional design services. Not only will doing so keep the cost down, but it will give you a menu over which you have full creative control, and can updated at the drop of a hat.

There are many software packages out there that will allow you to create a design quite easily, many offering extensive libraries of templates that can be adapted for your own restaurant. In most cases, it is as convenient as choosing an outline, supplying any images, entering your menu copy, then saving and sending to a professional printer.

There are even online services, like Canva, that offer a completely free range of design options. These services can also have the added bonus of added shareability, allowing you to easily put your menu on a website or to share through social media.

How to write appetising food descriptions

Menu Descriptions

Writing the copy for your menu may seem like an afterthought to the design, but the importance of this stage should not be underestimated. Not only will effective description of your dishes influence the decision of your customers, but accurate copy will also help people understand each dish, making life easier for both them and your staff, who won’t have to answer as many questions.

There are a number of considerations that you should take into account here, which are discussed below:

  • Keep copy simple, yet engaging: Copy that is simple, to the point, and engaging will discourage diners from skim-reading your menu items.
  • Describe each item with accuracy and appeal: Referring to smells, tastes, and sensations will appeal to the senses, but don’t overdo it with long rambling descriptions. Don’t hesitate to speak to your chef if you want more of an insight into certain dishes.
  • Try out alternative ways of describing your food and drink: Like a chef creating a new dish, writing your menu copy can require a bit of experimentation and tinkering. Look for opportunities to describe your food in a new and exciting way.
  • Match the tone to your restaurant personality: The tone of your writing should complement your brand image. For example, if you are aiming for a formal atmosphere, you will want to avoid quirky or humorous copy. Likewise, being too formal if you want your restaurant to be fun will kill the mood too.
  • Name your dishes creatively: Try to think of ways that you can use the name of your dishes to entice your customers. Include little details which make the food sound more appealing, for example, ‘steak and chips’ can become ‘prime ribeye steak with hand-cut fries’. Take a moment to identify the unique selling points of the dish and use them to spice up the name and item description.
  • When writing, think like a customer: Approach the creation of each menu description with your customer in mind, and try to include any details which might attract questions from them. For example, if you have a meat item that can be cooked to a certain level (rare, well-done etc.), include this option in the description, or if you have a dish that is served in a special way, make it clear exactly how this will be to avoid confusion. Information like this will keep make your customers feel more informed about what they are ordering.
  • Use facts to generate authenticity: This is a great way of capturing your customer’s attention, as the allure of an authentic dining experience can be a powerful marketing tool. You can build this up by using any facts about your food at your disposal in your descriptions, especially if it is locally sourced — for example, information about where and when the fish used in your dishes was caught can be useful for a seafood restaurant, introducing the idea of fresh ingredients. The same can be done if your menu item has a story behind it, which could also appeal to the customer.
  • Proofread everything: As your menu is a direct reflection on the reputation of your restaurant, you should take care to ensure that everything is spelled correctly, and that there are no grammatical errors. It is important to do this before you have your menus produced en-masse. Be sure to get a someone else to read through and proof your copy.
  • Get feedback and don’t be afraid to change: It’s important to acknowledge that no menu is perfect and that you should be open to making alterations based on feedback and how things sell in your restaurant. You should review your menu is performing regularly, and try out different ways of describing dishes if your current listing isn’t working.

How to put your menu online

Putting my menu online

In this age of interactive menus and menu apps, it’s becoming vital that your restaurant is able to provide and online option for your customers to view. According to the 2016 Restaurant Industry Forecast by the National Restaurant Association, 70% of smartphone users will look at an establishment’s online menu before visiting, demonstrating that the majority of people will expect to view your food choices before they commit.

A potential customer may well make a decision on whether they will visit your restaurant based on the quality of your online menu. This, again, shows just how important a marketing tool a menu can be.

In this section, we will discuss how you can best present your menu online and how you can optimise it to help you sell your restaurant.

Aim for something mobile-friendly

As we’ve mentioned, a lot of diners will look at your online menu on their smartphones, which is a convenient on-the-go option, especially when you are out and about looking for somewhere to eat.

Only offering a PDF menu means that users have to download it to their device, which can be a turn-off for many. Additionally, a PDF requires you to pinch and zoom to navigate it on a mobile screen which can be very awkward if you are on the move. By offering a mobile-friendly menu as part of your site, people will be able to view it immediately and use it with little trouble. Furthermore, when it comes to changing your menu, it is much easier to update a live site directly than having to re-upload a PDF from scratch.

With this in mind, it is well worth adding a ‘menu’ option to your restaurant’s website if you don’t already have one, and it’s also worth the time to ensure your site is optimised for mobile viewing. This is something you can learn more about in Moz’s Optimising for Mobile best-practice guide, though it is best to seek professional assistance if required.

Include some call to actions

It is possible to add some subtle prompts for customers to further interact with your business without overloading your menu with advertorial content, which is likely to put them off.

Make sure that your restaurant phone number and address are visible from every page of your menu so that diners don’t have to go searching for a contact page to get in touch. The best way to do so is to include it near the top or bottom of the page, so it is always there but not front and centre with your dishes. If you have an online ordering or table booking service, you can also display a button in a non-intrusive location so that it is easily accessible.

You can also include some options for interaction on social media or for online reviews. Subtle sharing buttons on your menu or on each menu item can encourage people to share their favourite dishes, while a simple link to a site like TripAdvisor might result in a glowing review from a new or regular customer.

Include up-to-date dishes and pricing

Once you’ve got your menu online, there’s no excuse for not keeping it up to date with the dishes and prices currently on offer in your restaurant. If you neglect your menu, it could lead to a customer arriving only to find that the dish they have had their eye on is no longer on offer or has changed price, resulting in a negative experience. Including prices also allows any potential customers to decide whether you are within their price range. Get into the habit of amending both your physical and online menus together.

How to get your menu printed

Menu printing

© Dan Taylrlicence

After all of the effort you’ve gone through when planning and designing your menu, it’s only fitting that you have them printed in a way that reflects the quality of your work. Even if you have the most professional looking menu, a bad printing job can undo the great impression you would otherwise have made. A botched print will make your creation look amateurish, and will create a negative impression on potential customers.

With this in mind, there are a few key considerations you need to make when it comes to the printing of your menu. We’ve discussed some of these below.

Have them produced by a professional printer

Unless you are willing to invest in a high-grade printer yourself, you will need to find a professional printing service that can offer you what you need within your printing budget. No matter how good you think your home or workplace printer may be, a professionally printed menu created with a digital printer will have a much higher resolution and much more vibrant colours, and an overall print quality that is far superior.

When it comes to finding a printing service to partner up with, you should look for a number of criteria that they should be able to meet. Firstly, you should check their website to see if they have any examples of printing they have done for other businesses. Most reputable printers will be eager to show of a portfolio of their handiwork, especially if it is impressive. If a particular company doesn’t have any examples on their website, don’t be afraid to contact them and request some photos via email.

Any printing service you choose should be able to offer you a printing run within your budget. As long as you have done your planning, you should be aware of the level of service you can afford without blowing the bank. Remember that you can probably negotiate on the price if your menu is being produced in bulk, so it is definitely worth enquiring. Also, an expensive service does not necessarily mean a premium-quality print, and that’s why it’s important to see some examples first.

Lastly, you should choose a printing company that can produce your menus within a timescale that suits you. This is particularly important if you are looking to display a seasonal menu, as you don’t want to receive your menus late and miss out on the prime season for business or advance bookings. Check with the business and get them to confirm that they can meet your own schedule.

Choose the right paper

If you are having your menu printed onto paper, take care to choose one that will display your menu in all of its glory — a poor choice of paper at this stage can sabotage all of your hard work. A good choice is a quality white stock that handles colour print well. Your printer might be able to recommend the best product for the job, so it is definitely worth asking them for their advice.

If you have a design with a coloured background, opt to have it printed onto white stock. While it is cheaper to print onto coloured paper, the printed colours in your text and images can often appear muddy, as opposed to the sharper quality you can expect from a white paper with a printed background. A glossy paper, although pricier, can enhance your menu with superior vivid colouring and a texture that can easily be wiped down if there is a spillage.

Another option is to consider single use menus that can simply be disposed of when used. These are a handy option for a more casual dining experience, and can be printed on lower-grade paper. They often double up as placemats for the table and can simply be recycled after use.

Consider a laminated or synthetic menu

If you have a causal or family-friendly restaurant, you may want to invest in a laminated or synthetic menu over a standard paper print. These finishes offer a tougher, waterproof option that can stand up to being dropped, torn, or spilled upon, as well as being easier to clean.

Lamination offers maximum protection from spills and sticky fingers, as the page is completely enclosed within plastic sheets, though cheaper options like flush-cut lamination may leave the edges of the paper exposed.

A synthetic print menu is more flexible and lightweight than a laminate, offering more design options, such as bi-folds and tri-folds. On the other hand, the ink on the page will still be exposed and may not withstand contact with liquids other than water. Synthetic prints are also easier to crease.

Request a press proof

Requesting a press proof of your new menu is vital, as it will allow you to see and test the finished product before committing to a whole print run. Many printing services offer these as standard, but if not, you should ensure that you receive one before you spend a large portion of your budget. If something is not quite right, you can avoid being lumbered with a poor print.

Once you receive your press proof, you should take the time to make sure everything is up to scratch. By this we don’t mean a quick glance at home or in the print shop, it’s worth the extra effort to take the menu to your restaurant to see how it looks against the décor and under your lighting, as you might not spot a fault until it is in the environment where it will spend its time.

You should also try canvassing the opinion of others, as they can often make comments on things that you would have missed or considered fine. Don’t hesitate to test run your menu on your family, friends, staff or even some regular customers.

How to display your menu

Menu Display

When your menu design is complete and ready to go, you can begin to think about your options for display. You should aim to show it in a way that allows your customers to browse it casually, without it being too much of a distraction to the great atmosphere and service you will providing as part of their dining experience.

Choose a cover if your menu is printed on paper

If you have opted to have your menu printed on high-quality paper over card, laminate, or a synthetic material, you will need to think about inserting it into a menu cover for protection. Even in the hands of the most refined diners, a paper menu is liable to pick up folds, tears, and fingerprints after just a few uses, so this is why a menu cover is important.

Like the menu itself, a lot can be read into your choice of menu cover. There is little point in displaying your beautiful design in something that will spoil the impression immediately, especially if you would like to use a cover that your customer will see before the menu itself, such as something that is book-style. That’s why you should choose a cover that reflects the quality of your restaurant and one that your diners will not be put off by.

Some of the best options for menu covers are something in a dark colour, such as black or brown, which don’t pick up and display dirt, fingerprints, or blemishes easily. Leather or faux-leather is always a good option, as it suggests an upmarket dining experience while offering strong protection for your menu. If you have the budget, you could even go so far as to have your menu covers customised to display your restaurant name or branding on the cover.

On-table versus off-table

The decision of displaying your menu on or off table is one that you will have to make, and it will depend on the type of dining experience you wish to provide. As part of traditional restaurant table service, the menu will be brought to the table and taken away by your staff once the customer has ordered. This method is favoured by most ‘restaurants that offer waiter service so if this is the atmosphere you are trying to create, an off-table menu is probably the way forward.

On the other hand, if you are trying to create a more casual dining experience, it is worth considering an on-table menu that your customers can consider and order from in their own time. This is a popular option in establishments where orders are taken at a bar or point-of-sale. If you are going to offer an on-table option, you will probably need to protect your menu — remember to choose a laminated or synthetic print, and you will also need a menu holder to save space and keep everything organised.

Displaying your menu outside

As well as offering your menu online, you should display your menu outside of your restaurant. This will allow passers-by to see what’s on offer before they commit to entering your restaurant. This can be a great way of attracting people in areas that have a high density of dining options, as you can use the strength of your menu to woo customers that may be searching for a place to eat.

There are a few outdoor display options available for displaying your menu, including the use of a display case that shows your regular menu print, having your menu printed on a weatherproof sign, and a chalkboard which will require your staff to update it on a regular basis. Which option you choose will depend on the atmosphere you are trying to convey to customers and the budget you have to set aside to do so.

Looking for quality products for your menu and restaurant?

Here at Alliance Online, we offer a huge range of restaurant supplies and disposables that can equip your establishment with the all things it needs to succeed. We are the UK’s largest catering supplier and can deliver to your premises through our national delivery network.

We can assist in the display and protection of your restaurant menu with our covers and holders, outdoor display cases, and our chalk boards and chalk markers. We can also offer a wide range of restaurant and bar items as part of our wider range, as well as a huge variety of catering appliances and cookware for your kitchen.