How to Design a Restaurant Menu

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You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. And, there’s no impression greater for a restaurant than its menu.

Whether you’re operating a mobile food truck, an upscale haute cuisine hotspot, or an ultra-lean delivery-only enterprise, all restaurants need a menu. And, since we eat with our eyes first, the visual design of your menu matters a great deal!

Below, you’ll find out what goes into the most effective (and mouthwatering!) menu design and learn how to make your own in just a few minutes.

In the simplest terms, a restaurant menu is a list of food and drink items. In reality, though, there’s so much more to it!

Not just a list of dishes and prices, the best restaurant menus will delight customers, build brand awareness, and increase your revenue.

Here are six key roles that a stellar restaurant menu will play.

1. Communicates Aesthetic

Vibrant and friendly, this menu template is perfect for a fast-casual hot dog joint.

The first role of your restaurant menu is to convey your aesthetic. In other words, your menu needs to immediately reflect your eatery’s personality and brand—whether that’s casual beach bar, hole-in-the-wall street eats, or high-end international cuisine.

One way to do this is to think about your menu as an extension of your physical dining space, finding graphic elements, textures, photos, colors, and fonts that match.

You could also look at what peer restaurants are doing for their menus, especially those within a similar price point, cuisine style, or overall vibe.

2. Piques Appetite

Cocktail menu template with picture of mojito
A sun-splashed minty mojito makes you thirsty, right? Customize this menu template.

Although most people who come to your restaurant (or go online to order) are already hungry, it never hurts to pique that appetite even further!

Whether through imagery, words, or both, the right menu design can build anticipation and make people more excited for what you’re serving.

To pique diners’ appetites, consider incorporating the following elements into your menu:

This last suggestion has been shown to increase diners’ cognitive engagement in academic studies of wine menus. In other words, you can actually make guests pay more attention simply by giving more information on the menu.

In another study, descriptions of menu items led to 27% more sales, as well as higher reported satisfaction among diners. Not bad for a few extra words!

3. Provides Key Information

Yellow-beige menu with grid layout and boxes
By clearly noting “cash only,” this menu template prevents confusion.

Beyond dish names, descriptions, and prices, your menu can be used to give helpful context to diners. This information could relate to individual dishes or to your restaurant as a whole. 

For example, it’s a good idea to list:

  • Special callouts for healthy food: organic, plant-based, antibiotic-free, etc.
  • All food allergens and cross-contamination risks
  • Particular preparations for religious/customary purposes
  • Payment info (e.g. Cash only or tips already included)
  • Instructions for how to order (e.g. Go to the counter or use our app)

4. Builds an Emotional Connection

Trifold sushi menu template with photo of women eating
This menu template devotes space to telling your restaurant’s story.

While food and drink are the primary raison d’etre for any restaurant, they’re not the only thing that matters to diners. Eating out is an experience as much as it is physical nourishment, and the best menus build an engaging narrative that contributes to that overall guest experience.

Sometimes referred to as “menu storytelling,” these elements might include:

  • A paragraph about your core values as a business—for example, if you’re minority-owned or support fair working conditions.
  • A bulleted list of foods you do or do not serve—especially if you’re allergen-free or oriented toward a particular cause like food justice or animal rights.
  • Your restaurant’s story or history—particularly if you’re well recognized, family-owned, culturally authentic, or run by a famous chef.
  • Information about where and how you source your food—especially if it’s local, organic, farm-to-table, or otherwise notable.

In other words, ask yourself one question and then answer it on your menu: What makes your restaurant special?

5. Encourages (the Right) Sales 

Black menu with grid layout and shaded box
The eye is naturally drawn to the shaded box. Customize this menu template.

Did you know that the graphic design of your restaurant menu can directly impact sales? By laying out information strategically, you can guide patrons’ eyes toward specific items that are especially popular, new, or high revenue.

It all comes down to the rules of visual hierarchy. First decide what’s most important to feature, and then call attention to those items in any number of ways:

  • By placing them toward the top of the menu
  • By using a larger or different font
  • By using a brighter color for the text or background
  • By putting an outlined or shaded box around/behind it
  • By adding a highlighter or underline effect
  • By placing an arrow, line, or other visual indicator
  • By including a photo (and not including photos of anything else!)

6. Works Well in Context

Minimal restaurant menu with gray background and purple text
A menu template like this one can be easily folded in half for better portability.

As you consider the design of your menu, don’t forget to think about how it will be used. Are you a fast-casual chain with a build-your-own/assembly line model? Do diners sit down before ordering food? Do they most often order at a crowded bar?

How and where diners order can impact the recommended size and dimensions for your menu, as well as the material you print on.

Here are a few good guidelines:

  • If diners view menus while standing in line, keep them small and portable. Bifold or trifold brochures can work especially well.
  • If diners are seated before ordering, menu size doesn’t matter as much. Large-format menus and multi-page menu booklets are common.
  • If diners are ordering online, make your menu as easy to view as possible. Consider creating one PDF version for desktop and another much narrower design for mobile.

10 Do’s and Don’ts for an Effective Restaurant Menu

Two women looking at a restaurant menu
Always consider the customer experience. License this image via Stock-Studio.

Here are a few more tips and takeaways for creating a restaurant menu that looks great and drives sales.

Do . . .

  1. Be strategic about the order in which you present dishes. Put higher-value items in more prominent places.
  2. Use meaningful categories (e.g. Starters, Mains, Shareables) to help people find what they’re looking for.
  3. Write with intention! Weave in some of the most mouthwatering terms to describe your food and drink.
  4. Be aware of what other restaurants in your area are doing. Feel free to take inspiration, but avoid creating anything too similar.
  5. Consider leaving off the dollar signs. One study has shown that diners spend more without the $.

Don’t . . .

  1. Think you have to put everything on the same menu. Consider a separate drink menu, bar menu, or seasonal menu insert.
  2. Do it all yourself! You can make the creative process easier by starting with a pro-designed menu template.
  3. Rely on outdated cultural stereotypes when choosing fonts, colors, or patterns for your menu.
  4. Overwhelm diners. Unless you’re an established chain where people expect a gigantic menu, it’s usually best to keep your menu short and scannable.
  5. Forget the white space. Give your menu items plenty of room to breathe, so readers don’t feel overwhelmed.

Menu template examples in Shutterstock Create
It’s as easy as picking a pro-designed menu template.

Ready to put your ideas to paper? Here’s how to design a restaurant menu in just a few minutes, even with no design experience:

  1. Choose your favorite menu template in Create.
  2. Upload your restaurant logo.
  3. Click into the template’s placeholder text to enter your own menu items, descriptions, and prices.
  4. Play around with the built-in tools to add shapes, insert background patterns, change colors, apply textures, and more.
  5. Need some delectable food photography to bring your menu to life? Choose from millions of stock photos and illustrations, right from the editor.
  6. Download your file as a PDF, PNG, or JPEG or as a print-ready PDF with bleed if you’re planning to print your menus professionally.

Turning one-time diners into loyal patrons starts with a beautiful menu that conveys your brand. Use the tips above, choose your favorite menu template, and get your kitchen staff ready for the crowds!

License this cover image via ivector.

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