What a Great Restaurant Menu Looks Like

All About Menus!

My name is Thomas Hansen and I am a food writer for PinOn.

I’ve worked in the restaurant industry since I was old enough to work. I started as a dishwasher in a high-volume brunch restaurant in my small hometown of New Jersey and worked my way up to the position of headline cook before I graduated high school. I’ve worked in low-end, bar-style restaurants where beer drew the crowd and food was an afterthought and I’ve worked in fine-dining French and Italian restaurants where the cheapest appetizers started at $18. All of this is to say that despite my age, I have both a broad and deep understanding of the food industry which serves the purpose of these blog posts—to share those insights with you, the reader.

So, where to begin?

I think for this introductory blog I’ll start with something simple, something we’re all familiar with when going into a new restaurant and something that directly affects the customer: the menu.

The menu of a restaurant can tell you a lot about the place without even eating the food. How do they describe the food? Do they prefer using the pretentious sobriquet ‘pommes frites’ to the more recognizable ‘French Fry’? And what does that say about the restaurant?

In my opinion, a menu that uses flowery language to describe its food had better deliver when the plate arrives and if it doesn’t, I’ll be sure to avoid the restaurant in the future.

What other aspects of the menu tell you something about the restaurant?

I know when I go to a new restaurant and am handed a simple, clean, elegant menu that is intuitively organized, rather limited, and yet has an overall cohesion to the individual items, that I am in for a treat. Large menus are a warning sign to me. If the menu I’m reading is beginning to resemble a brochure or a novel with pages and pages of nondescript, overly generic food, then I am immediately wary. I often make the sarcastic joke when handed a large menu that what I love about restaurants with big menus is that you know they cook everything on them really well.


An ideal menu for me is relatively short.


The food on it is familiar but the ingredients used exciting enough to peak my interest. The material of the menu itself is clean—no coffee stains, rips, or non-descript splotches—indicating that they update their menu enough to necessitate printing new menus regularly. Which is a good sign. I’ve always disliked those elaborate menus that haven’t been laminated since they were first printed and you should too. I may love a restaurant like that the first five times I go, but if the menu hasn’t changed in a year, then that is an indication to me that the restaurant would rather keep their old customers than entice new ones. Preferably, a restaurant should be striving to maintain a healthy mix of both.

Here is an example of a clean menu to me that makes me excited for the meal to come:


Notice the simple fonts, the order of the dishes, the fact that despite being an Italian restaurant they avoid using the Italian word for all of the ingredients in each dish. All of that is a good sign.


And here is an example of a menu that puts me on high alert—one where the food sounds better than it actually tastes:


Notice the counterintuitive placement of the appetizers on the right, the different and distracting font uses, and the poor use of space and dish description.

Some parting words of advice when it comes to menus:

  • If the specials are on the same menu as the rest of the food than they are not specials but are just food they’re trying to hock to unwitting customers at a premium price
  • Calling them ‘haricot verts’ instead of ‘green beans’ (and other such unnecessary translations) is often a sign that they are trying to upcharge you just because they think they can get away with it
  • Most dinner menus should have a few unique daily items that feature exciting or more obscure/rare ingredients
  • If the words ‘balsamic reduction’, and other such buzz-word foods, appear in the ingredient list of multiple options, it is often because the chef is trying to cover up how bad their food actually is
  • And lastly, know what kind of restaurant you’re going to. The menu should reflect the atmosphere of the restaurant itself and if you sense an incongruity between the two than it is probably an indication that there are several other problems in the restaurant itself

If you are a restaurant owner or manager, click here to learn more about how we can build you a smart menu for free.


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