Writing Up Menus: It’s a Subtle Art
Think putting together a menu is easy? Try this: Take whatever you fixed for dinner last night and describe it on paper. Make it sound good--good enough to order.
“Sometimes I struggle, struggle, struggle,” says Mark Peel, chef and co-owner of Campanile, the Mediterranean restaurant on La Brea Avenue. And that’s after 20-plus years of practice.
“As the chef at [the original] Spago, I remember about a week before the restaurant opened we had no menu,” Peel says. “Wolfgang [Puck] sat down with three pieces of paper and a pen and wrote the whole menu. He didn’t cross one thing out. It was done in 15 or 20 minutes. I can’t do that.”
Describing the dishes is just part of it. There’s also pricing, organizing categories and placing the specific items in order. Not to mention typefaces and other details.
There’s a science to menu design, “almost a feng shui ,” says Los Angeles-based restaurant consultant Jerry Magnin.
This is not to say that all chefs or restaurateurs heed the rules. Some do naturally. Others are unaware of the many proven strategies that exist.
“With the economy and the way the world is, the way a menu is laid out can determine whether you make it or break it,” says Ezra Eichelberger, associate professor of menus and facilities at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “A restaurant has to manipulate people into buying particular items. It’s an important part of the profit.”
On a standard two-page menu, the eye first goes to the right side, just above center. Right there should be a profitable item, Eichelberger says. “Not an expensive or cheap item, but a profitable one.”
On a one-page menu, the eye starts just above center. Eichelberger also says the top two items of any category and the last item are also popular. “People tend to recall what they see first or last,” the professor says.
In a study at one of the CIA’s upscale on-campus restaurants, the locations of two main courses were swapped on a menu, then tracked for a month. The sales, Eichelberger says, changed almost identically.
So putting that most expensive item at the top of the menu might not be a good idea.
“What’s someone’s first impression going to be if they see $38.95?” Magnin says.
Scooter Kanfer, the chef at the House, the “progressive American” spot on Melrose Avenue, agrees. Beef, usually the priciest item on her menu, goes at the very bottom. “Maybe that’s just a habit I have. I kind of go from lighter food to heavier food,” she says. But “you don’t give your reader sticker shock if you put the most expensive item on the bottom.”
Often restaurateurs de-emphasize menu prices by listing them in a smaller typeface than the name of the item and its description. Or, they may leave off the dollar sign. Another tactic: placing the price after a tempting description of the item rather than after the item itself. “Spaghetti, $14" sounds steep and not very appealing, but “Spaghetti with grilled sardines, pine nuts, currants and wild spinach, $14" sounds worth it. (The latter is from a recent Campanile dinner menu.)
One common mistake, Eichelberger says, is putting prices in a single column down the menu’s right side. That encourages diners to immediately rule out some items and price-shop rather than study a menu. But all the pricing strategy in the world won’t help a poorly conceived menu. The food has to sound good. There’s “pasta with vegetables,” and then there’s “hand-cut pasta with corn, wild mushrooms and sage brown butter.” There’s “duck with string beans,” and then there’s “duck confit with haricots verts , crumbled potato, hazelnuts and candied kumquats.”
Both of the latter examples come from a recent menu at the stylish West Hollywood restaurant Lucques. When restaurants do a great job with menu descriptions, the response is almost Pavlovian.
“Certain words evoke a picture in people’s mind,” Peel says. “‘Stewed’ as opposed to ‘boiled.’ Stewing implies a gentle simmer, ‘roasting’ this intense caramelized flavor.”
Though descriptions are vital, superlatives are nearly worthless on a menu (they can, however, set a casual, chatty tone). Take the “Wonderful boneless and skinless sardine and avocado bruschetta” on Westwood Village’s Gardens on Glendon menu. It might well be “wonderful.” But what restaurant would claim otherwise? A similar thing happens when chefs use “fresh,” Eichelberger says. “As soon as you say it’s fresh salmon, [the customer] asks, ‘What about the other stuff?”’
A better way to indicate an ingredient’s freshness, Eichelberger says, is to include its local provenance. But that can get old quickly. The prototypical menu of the early ‘90s had a fish caught by so-and-so in such-and-such waters and served with organic vegetables lovingly picked on such-and-such farm. “It’s boring already,” Magnin says. “What is it?”
Perhaps in response to the novella-length menus of several years ago, many restaurants, particularly hot spots such as Lucques, Globe in Venice and The House, offer simple, one-page menus. According to Eichelberger, the average time a diner studies a menu is 109 seconds.
“I think menus should be short, not wordy, with a little surprise,” says The House’s Kanfer. “When I see a menu and the dish has 46 things, I think, ‘Do I want all those things in my mouth at the same time?”’
What’s more, she says, a menu should not make you feel ignorant. That means writing a menu with restraint, limiting sophisticated culinary terms and making sure not every dish is something along the lines of sea bream (a fish variety). Kanfer saw “breast of pintade " on a menu recently, and, she says, all she knew was that it was “an animal, and it has a breast.” ( Pintade is a French term for guinea hen, a type of large fowl.)
Still, Kanfer says, you have to think about challenging and educating your diner. “You have to make people feel like they’re discovering something new and cool. It is a tough line to walk.”
As with all rules, those of great menu design were made to be broken. Charlie Trotter’s, a celebrated fine-dining restaurant in Chicago, serves dishes such as “crispy sweetbreads with curried artichoke, poached Sacramento River crayfish, preserved celery & green curry emulsion.” That’s one dish, and a whole a lot of reading--a lot to wrap your mind and palate around.
The House, meanwhile, lists its prices in a single column down the right side. And on the Campanile menu, the porterhouse steak, the most expensive item at $38, is way up top.
“You can break all the rules and still be a great restaurant,” Eichelberger says. “And you can do everything by the book and still fail.”