How to Design an Effective Restaurant Menu

Author avatar wrote on 11/12/2019

How to Design an Effective Restaurant Menu

A good restaurant menu design is key to any restaurant’s marketing strategy . When your menu design goes in harmony with your customers’ favorite dishes and your clearness and honesty of preparing food, your customers will feel smart and comfort every time they look at your menu because they understand it and they can expect what will they get after they order. Here are a few tips on how to design an effective restaurant menu.

1. What steps should I take before I design a menu?

As with most creative endeavors, proper results can’t be achieved without sufficient research. In the case of designing the right menu, that means collecting data from various sources. Examine your own numbers first, such as your restaurant’s prospective financial and marketing numbers and its sales mix. Then look at your competitors: examine their Web sites, menus and marketing efforts and try to see where they went right and how you could compete successfully with those traits. Also, look at vendors and see how they handle similar challenges, and read industry sources (trade publications, published research) to evaluate trends and successes.

After that, consider your location and how it relates to the immediate neighborhood around you. Eighty percent of a typical restaurant’s business usually comes from the residents living within a 10-minute drive of that location. Knowing this, ask yourself the following:

  • What can my restaurant menu offer that others in the area do not?
  • What menu items do we have in common?
  • How does our pricing match up?
  • Does my menu offer more variety than theirs?

Determining these factors will help guide you when you design a menu for your restaurant.

2. The value of a strong first impression

Rather than read menus from front to back, diners tend to scan them quickly (spending an average of just 109 seconds, according to a Gallup poll). This means that a menu has a small amount of time to make a big impact. Restaurants can make their menus easier to scan by using clear section headings, easy-to-find dish titles, and other visual techniques (more on that under point #3).

Menu engineers make a point of studying which parts of the menu are “prime real estate”—where people look first in that short 109 seconds, and (as a result) which menu items tend to be the most profitable. The general conclusion? When scanning vertically arranged menus, customers tend to spend the most time looking at the first and last items—for that reason, the dishes in those spots are usually the biggest sellers.

3. Emphasize certain menu items

Like how newspapers and magazines use “call-out” quotes to emphasize certain bits of information, menus highlight certain items that restaurants want you to order using what industry pros call “eye magnets.” An eye magnet is just what it sounds like—anything that attracts the eye.

It could be a photo of the dish, a graphic or illustration, a colored or shaded box, a border, or some other attention-getter.

The menu below features decorative frames and pointing hand graphics to bring attention to certain menu items. These embellishments also give the menu a nostalgic, old-fashioned diner vibe. Later, we’ll take a closer look at how nostalgia can be a powerful emotion in terms of getting people to order certain dishes.


Dribbble/M. Frances Foster

This menu uses multiple eye magnets, including shaded boxes and frames with both solid and dotted lines. Elements like ribbons and arrows help your eye travel down the page.

Art of the Menu/American Design Language

Art of the Menu/American Design Language

The next menu continues the pattern of using a box or frame to highlight certain dishes (a fairly common practice), but takes it one step further, grouping some of the more expensive menu items together. This grouping, along with the decorative illustrations inside the box, draws the eye and encourage customers to order from that selection.

Art of the Menu/Masterminds Agency

Art of the Menu/Masterminds Agency

Here, this restaurant opts for a different clever strategy. It uses an eye-catching red box to highlight the second-most-expensive item on the menu but also labels the dish as being “for two” to make it come across as more reasonably priced.

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Gregg Rapp recommends being strategic with emphasizing menu items. The more often you do it, the less impact it will have. He suggests limiting highlighted items to one per category or section (e.g. appetizers, entrees, desserts, etc.).

The dessert menu below features just one highlighted item. As a nice touch, its style reflects the restaurant logo design at the top, and hand-drawn illustrations add a little interest to an otherwise very simple design.

Oat Creative

Oat Creative

4. Consider Local Foods

Using local produce allows you to add variety to your restaurant menu, changing it with the seasons and is a good marketing tool. Today, using local foods on your restaurant menu goes beyond just fruits and vegetables. It can refer to sustainable beef and seafood, artisan foods, homemade desserts, or hyper-local restaurant gardens. Not only does buying local produce help your local economy, but the food usually tastes and looks better than those grown in larger corporation farms.

5. Bold Typography is a Good Thing

Typography is the element that will help you sell items from the menu. Go bold. And maintain readability.

Bold typography can serve as your main “art” element. Incorporate your logo into the menu design or select a great typeface to carry the menu. Remember that people will need to read the words to make choices as you factor in type selections.

Consider a fun pairing of a novelty or script typeface for big headers or marquee menu items and something a little more standard for everything else.

And remember to use bolding and italics strategically. These typographic techniques will draw people to specific items on the menu first. Highlight items that your restaurant is known for or that are good for your bottom line.

6. Use photos sparingly

Photos of food are more commonly associated with junk mail fliers and big chain restaurants like Denny’s; not high-end restaurants. If you do use photos, they must be of extremely high professional quality, which may be costly. In general, it’s better to leave the quality of the food to the customer’s imagination, because not all food photography will appeal to everyone.


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