Tips for Designing and Laying Out a Restaurant Menu

Worker writing on restaurant chalkboard

David Prinz/Getty Images

One of the most important parts of a restaurant's business is its menu. The design is a reflection of the restaurant itself, and is one of the main factors in luring new customers to try your restaurant. Careful consideration should be paid to the menu descriptions, layouts, and colors.

Compare the Competition

Check out your competition. It is as simple as walking into your competitors restaurant, looking around, and asking for a menu. Your prospective restaurant menu and theirs should share similarities congruent with your style, but still retain your restaurants individual personality. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How will my restaurant menu be different from everyone else’s? If you can’t answer this question, stop right here. You need to decide what will separate your food from your competitors'. This is the driving force behind your restaurant menu design, and you want to make sure your own identity is crystal clear.
  • What restaurant menu items are similar to my competitors? Not everything on your menu has to be 100 percent original. Look at how many places offer a hamburger or cheeseburger as a dinner option. You can offer similar items, but you should add something to make it stand out. For example, your restaurant menu may include a hamburger with hand-cut, parmesan-dusted French fries. A simple change is all that is needed to set your menu apart. Work with your chef to see what cost-effective options you can employ.
  • Is my menu pricing in line with the restaurant's style? To continue the burger analogy, if you charge $14 and your competitor only charges $9, you’d better be adding something like truffles or lobster to justify the price.

Designing a Layout

Once you have studied the competition—and written a stellar menu—you need to create the perfect restaurant menu design. This sounds easy enough, but an effective menu design is more than just printing out a list of items from a word processor. Unless you have done it before or are a professional designer, hiring someone with proficiency will pay itself back exponentially if your menu is designed in line with your restaurant. Effective menu layouts are usually designed by someone else, who then allows you access to the formatting tools to make changes as desired.

Picking Colors and Fonts

Your menu font and color scheme should reflect your restaurant theme. For example, if you are opening a Mexican-themed restaurant, vibrant colors such as red, turquoise, purple, and green would be good choices. These same colors would look out of place on the menu of a French bistro or Italian restaurant. Ditto for the font. A French bistro may have a classic script font or simple plain font, while a sports bar or other casual restaurant might have a less formal or playful font. A designer can help here and ideally will work with whoever is designing the interior of your space, ensuring cohesion between the menu and the decor. You'll likely want one offsetting font, but stick to that: type designers generally recommend no more than two fonts in any presentation.

Breaking It Up Into Different Sections

Take a look at a menu from most any restaurant and you will see that it is arranged sequentially: appetizers, soups and salad, main entrees, then desserts and beverages. Have sections clearly identified with bold headings, boxes, or borders. Highlighting special dishes with a star or other insignia to indicate a house favorite or chef’s specialty is one way to draw a customer's attention to popular dishes or those with high-profit margins.

Depending on your restaurant menu size, one or two columns makes for an attractive layout. Adding more columns runs the risk of looking like the newspaper classifieds. For daily specials, you can change them easily with a clear menu insert. Pictures of menu items can look great but are considered cliche above a certain price point.

Menu Descriptions

Your menu description should make a guest's mouth water. Don’t be afraid to explain what is in a dish. Use ethnic names if they fit, in order to add a bit of authentic flair. Adding a rare ingredient will have the guest asking what it is, which gives the server an opportunity to describe the dish in more detail—and hopefully selling it.

Incorporating geography or local history into a menu item name is also a way to make your restaurant menu unique. For example, Maine Lobster Roll sounds inviting, whether you eating it in Maine or somewhere else, as do Texas Barbequed Ribs and Georgia Peach Pie. Just be aware of geographic distinctions governed by law, such as in the case of Prosciutto di Parma or Jamon de Iberica.