The menu of your restaurant is a given—you’re going to print one up, and your guests are going to order from it—and that might be why its value is often understated. It’s more than a price list of the food and drink you offer; it’s often the deciding factor for getting people in the door in the first place. Prospective customers are looking at more than your food options and prices. They’re looking at the layout and the font, and reacting to things like the language you use and the color scheme. Most of this processing happens in the background of the mind, and if you’ve designed a good menu they might not even consciously note these little factors. But if you mess them up? That’s when customers notice. Print your menu in Times New Roman, and your customers will barely register a reaction. Do it in Comic Sans and you’ll instantly alienate all kinds of people everywhere. Seen in this way, you can start to see your menu as the way you communicate to the public what you and your business are about. If your restaurant were a paranoid, anti-government loner, your menu would be its manifesto.
It’s important, then, to get it right—but that’s a topic for another post. This one isn’t about getting it right, it’s about getting it not wrong. In other words, the things you shouldn’t be doing with your menu. In no order of importance, here are 10 menu practices that tend to really bug patrons.
- No Prices / Vague Prices. This happens mostly with alcohol—a menu will list what kinds of beers, vodkas, whiskies, etc., they have and not include the price. But it happens with food, too, in the form of the cryptic “Market Price.” No one likes to ask how much a menu item is, they just want to be told. And if you’re making something that you can’t predict from day to day how much it will cost, take it off the menu and put it on the specials board.
- Spelling Mistakes / Bad Grammar. If you’re listing a Hamburger with Sheeps on your menu, I’m leaving. Get someone to proofread it before you print out hundreds of menus. It’s not that hard. To be clear, the judgment here is not that you can’t spell or pluralise properly. It’s that you rushed the menu without being careful, and what kind of shortcuts are you taking in the kitchen?
- Highlighting Inconsequential Ingredients. Rosemary Mashed Potatoes is an appropriate name for the dish, because you taste rosemary and potatoes. On the other hand, something like Saffron Rice only leads to disappointment. Saffron’s strong metallic flavor makes it best suited to complement other ingredients within a dish, meaning that rice is pretty much going to taste like rice. You wouldn’t call pizza “Yeasted Cheese Bread.”
- Dirty Menus. This is gross. When I see old, crusted food stuck to a menu I want to run away, fast. When servers take the menus back from the guests, they should be giving a cursory look at each one to make sure they’re clean. Especially when they forget to take them right away, which your servers clearly did because how else would they food have gotten on them? A dirty menu just broadcasts an image of a sloppy restaurant where cleanliness is not a priority.
- Handwritten Price Changes. OK, I get that you don’t want to print up an entirely new menu just to add $1 to the price of all the dishes with shrimp. But some places go too far, making all sorts changes—crossing out dishes no longer offered and changing prices on several items, for example—in pen or marker. The whole thing has the stink of failure all over it, like you’re just barely getting by and can’t afford to go to an office supply store and spend 20 cents a page having something printed up new.
- Nonsensical Ordering of Categories. The categories should be in the same order that they’d get eaten. Restaurants will often screw this up because they want to highlight their “signature dishes” (aka their most profitable dishes). It can be frustrating though, to have a two-page spread of a handful each of appetisers and entrees, only to turn the page and see more appetisers, along with soups, salads, and sides. Then turn the page and for more entrees and desserts. It turns ordering a meal into a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style book, only without a point.
- Unsubstantiated Claims of Greatness. Really? Your house-made Caesar dressing is famous? I don’t think so. If it were, I’d have heard of it before reading about it on your menu but it wouldn’t tell me anything about the quality of the dish. Charles Manson is also famous. What about your “Original Recipe” gravy? It’s not really original. At best, it’s your own super tasty variation of something that’s been done a thousand times before.
- Not Knowing What You’re Selling. Have you got Chai Tea on your menu? Or Marinara Sauce? These are redundant, and betray a certain ignorance on your part. That doesn’t mean they won’t be tasty, but it certainly colors my impression of your food’s authenticity. Likewise, if you offer “Mescaline Greens” on your menu, and then serve me Mesclun Greens, I’m going to be super disappointed.
- No Descriptions of Dishes. “Boom Boom Shrimp” is certainly a fun name, but if you don’t tell me that it’s a sweet chili sauce providing the boom, I’ll have to ask my server for clarification. And that would mean I’d have to say out loud, “Can you tell me more about this Boom Boom Shrimp?” and I swear that’s never going to happen.
- Liberal Use of Vague and Terrible Language.Your steak had better be “grilled to perfection,” so don’t waste my time telling me you’re doing your job. If you use words like “exquisite,” “complex,” “bold,” “delectable,” or anything else that’s not telling me concrete facts about the food you’re preparing, I’ll be annoyed. I don’t litter my blog posts with Oysters Rockefeller or Veggie Pad Thai. Don’t clutter up your menu with words like “sumptuous” or “mouth-watering.” Deal?