A Guide on How to Design a Menu for a Restaurant in 2023

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You can prepare an incredibly delicious dish that people are sure to love and enjoy, but that alone isn’t enough to sell those dishes and bring customers through the door. You need great marketing to sell those dishes — a big part of this is your menu and its design.

We’ll teach you how to design a menu for a restaurant based on our experience as a leader in the space. Our guide applies to both paper and digital menus, but the latter is better since 84% of customers check online menus before deciding where to dine. We’re here to help here, as you can design a menu online for free using our many templates.

Designing a Menu for Your Restaurant — How To

When designing a menu for your restaurant, a lot of factors come into play, more so when trying to improve your guests' dining experience. To make your task easier, we’ve outlined the menu design process into two major tips, as well as outlining the 10 design requirements of a menu.

Design Tip #1: Don’t be lax about your menu.

Since it’s impractical to verbally explain the taste of each dish or combination to customers despite the need to advertise them, your menu is the ideal marketing tool to persuade them regarding the value of each dish. Without proper menu design, one or more of the following situations may arise:

  • Customers may not try out the dishes you’re most interested in selling.
  • Your innovative meals and specials may receive less attention.
  • The average purchase size will decrease or hardly increase.
  • Customers may leave your restaurant less satisfied.
  • Your efforts to acquire and retain customers will be less effective.

There are several other ways a poorly designed menu can hurt your business, but we believe the list above is enough to convince any restaurateur that menu design is critical to success. However, updating your menu often enough—a minimum of four times yearly—is another requirement for increasing sales.

Surprisingly, many restaurants are making costly mistakes with their menu, and some never realise these mistakes, let alone fix them. You’d find many restaurateurs don’t know how to design a menu layout but still preside over their restaurant’s menu policy.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to avoid making such mistakes. While you look up helpful menu design tips, it all begins with some competitive analysis.

Design Tip #2: Study your competitors’ menus.

The reason is simple: you don’t want to start or operate from a position of weakness compared to well-established restaurants with bags of experience.

To a newbie restaurateur, menus may seem like a simple aspect of the food business. But a seasoned restaurateur who has experimented with menus knows they can make or break a food business. On the bright side, you can try out free menu designs when creating a digital menu on Menuzen to come up with the best for your restaurant.

Some restaurants spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on their menu and marketing to influence customers and outpace other businesses. Don’t think you, too, must invest considerable sums in menu design to succeed. We only mentioned this to emphasise the importance of a great menu and why you need to study the competition to more accurately figure out how to design the menu for your restaurant.

Just think, how many times have you walked past a restaurant and looked at their menu, only to carry on walking - you don’t want to be that restaurant!

Why You Need to Know the Competition When Designing a Restaurant Menu

We’re assuming that you’ve already picked a location for your restaurant. But even if you haven’t, analysing competitors’ menus will give you an idea of who you’re up against and guide your entry into the domain.

Using a spreadsheet tool such as Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel, list your direct competitors within a 10 km radius of your location. Direct competitors are those that offer your type of cuisine.

It’s easy to access your competitors’ menus as almost all restaurants have a copy of their menus online (even if it’s outdated). You can look for it on their website, directory page, review sites, and even social media platforms — especially Facebook and Instagram. This gives you an idea of the different sections of a restaurant menu list to include in yours.

In this step, you want to identify the following features of their menus:

  1. Bestsellers
  2. Specials
  3. Pricing
  4. Psychology
  5. Strengths and weaknesses

1. How do you identify bestsellers?

You can identify bestsellers through verbiage or symbols that restaurants use to indicate their hottest items. Usually, the website will be structured to encourage customers to try out those dishes, especially if they aren’t sure what to order. 

Take note of these bestsellers you find in a competitor’s menu. These represent potential dishes to offer in your restaurant. Some bestsellers may require further research to determine their popularity within the market.

2. Should you include special dishes?

Making special dishes is good because it can help you:

  • build a unique brand,
  • improve customer experience,
  • acquire new customers,
  • gain some competitive advantage, and
  • increase profits.

These specifically apply to dishes that are trending within your target market. On the other hand, ignoring such food items can slow you down in the competition.

All of these underscore why knowing how to design a menu for a restaurant the proper way is necessary unless you intend to hire an expert for it. Ultimately, special dishes can be effective customer magnets in restaurant sales-boosting strategies.

3. How to analyse competitor prices.

At this stage, we’ll assume you have a list of all the dishes you want to offer in your restaurant. Study how your competitors prepare these dishes (mainly the ingredients used) and determine the portions, extras, and combinations.

The goal of your competitor price analysis is to:

  • identify the benchmarks,
  • discover the highest and lowest prices,
  • know the portions, and
  • pick out any unique pricing verbiage.

4. The menu psychology competitors use.

Menu psychology is that aspect of menu design that aims to manipulate a customer’s perception of value. Restaurants use this tactic to:

  • increase sales,
  • gain new customers,
  • charge higher margins, etc.

However, you won’t achieve all this without knowing how to design a menu for a restaurant to begin with.

There are over a dozen such tricks, which we’ll discuss in more detail later. You must know these tactics to identify them in a menu. Although some people consider it unethical, it’s common practice in almost all industries.

Identifying and using your competitors’ menu psychology.

Step into the customer’s shoes when scrutinising menus for manipulative verbiage or symbols. Usually, these features tend to draw your attention to a particular dish.

Suppose you get even a clue that a dish is the restaurant’s bestseller or suspect that the restaurant wants to sell more of that item. In that case, it’s almost certain that those positive features you perceive about the dish are psychological sales agents that are key to developing an effective menu.

5. Analyse a menu’s strengths & weaknesses.

Although the most successful menus sell the most items, these typically share some similar characteristics. The same thing applies to poor menus.

When examining a menu for its strengths and weaknesses, pay attention to the level to which it satisfies each of the following 10 design requirements for a great menu:

  • Readability
  • Branding
  • Price range
  • Simplicity 
  • Layout
  • Images
  • Psychology 
  • Size
  • Aesthetic
  • Monetary symbols

A menu lacking in any of the 10 features above isn’t complete. You’ll get more details on these features as you read on.

But what must be understood is that to analyse a competitor’s menu for strengths and weaknesses properly, you must appreciate these menu features and how well they need to be incorporated. This is fundamental in learning how to design an excellent menu for a restaurant.

It’s important to remember that no menu can continuously sell a poor dish or experience. In other words, menus can’t compensate for any loopholes in taste or hospitality.

Instead, your food should be delicious, and customers should receive memorable treatment from your hotel staff. Otherwise, you may have the best menu in the world, but your restaurant business will come crashing down in no time.

1. Readability saves time.

You’d find plenty of restaurant menus that are relatively hard to read due to some avoidable mistakes. It would help if you were careful with some design elements, such as font, images, and colours. Whenever you see a hard-to-read menu, the problem lies in one or more of these elements.

2. Font and readability.

You have the freedom to use a wide range of different fonts for the text of your menu. But some fonts are outright bad for your restaurant.

When choosing a font, try to balance between readability and aesthetics. The size and thickness of a font can also affect readability.

Some of the best menu fonts include:

  • Garamond
  • Helvetica
  • Brandon Grotesque
  • Lavenda
  • Proxima Nova
  • Cafe Francoise
  • Baskerville
  • Molluca

Similarly, some fonts are generally bad for readability, no matter how much you tweak the design.

Some of these include:

  • Copperplate Gothic
  • Arial
  • Trajan Pro
  • Courier
  • Comic Sans
  • Curlz
  • Papyrus
  • Times New Roman
  • Bonzai
  • Neuland-Inline

It would help if you learned how to design a menu for a restaurant using the best fonts. Still, just because a font has good readability on certain prints, like banners or flyers, doesn’t make it suitable for menu design. So, when testing out different fonts as you design a menu, read up on the suitability of any font you choose for a restaurant menu.

You may think a font is easy to read, probably because your eye got accustomed to the font during the design process or simply due to bias. But when presented to a customer seeing it for the first time in several weeks or months, it may take them longer to read.

Also, that a font has good readability for blog posts doesn’t necessarily mean the same will apply when used in menu designs. Some fonts, for example, are only readable in larger sizes.

This is why we recommend using the right design software, like Menuzen, for presenting your restaurant offers to customers via a digital menu. Namely, you’d be able to select from a variety of only those fonts that suit a menu design, in addition to helpful materials and samples to guide and inspire your design.

3. Simple vs. complex menu.

Your menu doesn’t need to have fancy pictures and artistic fonts. Many simple menus sell far better than their heavily-designed counterparts.

We’d advise you to opt for a simple menu design unless you have good design skills. You can start by checking out the various templates on Menuzen; you should find a perfect fit for your restaurant here.

4. Colour combination and readability.

Your menu’s background and font colours should contrast such that letters pop off the menu sharply. Excessively bright backgrounds aren’t usually good, even if the font has a bright colour too. As a rule of thumb, don’t choose colours randomly since colour psychology plays a role in designing a pleasant menu.

We’re not saying you shouldn’t use bright and vibrant colours when designing a menu. In fact, colours such as red and orange feature in some of the best restaurant menus. But you have to combine them aesthetically.

This should be the job of your menu designers or the expert designers at Menuzen, who’re always ready to help you make a menu whose colour vibes with your brand.

Overall, colour psychology and branding are concepts that’ll simplify your study on how to design a menu for a restaurant.

5. Does your menu go with the brand?

Do you know why some restaurants charge $12 for a burger while others charge $7 for the same item?

One of the main reasons for this is branding. Although branding involves a lot of things, your menu is one of them. Therefore, something about your menu should be unique from the rest of the competition.

If you design just some generic menu that doesn’t trigger any emotions about your restaurant’s uniqueness in your customers, making them brand loyalists willing to pay higher prices will be an uphill battle. This is why we advise restaurateurs to hire professional menu designers or seek expert help with their menus. Here’s a myriad of helpful features the Menuzen platform offers in this regard.

You ought to know your customers and their expectations regarding your menu. You’d find that even the dishes you sell rhythm better with specific designs, colours, verbiage, etc.

Even a simple menu can be branded. In fact, these are usually the best menus for branding because they’ll communicate a unique restaurant message while simplifying the customer’s job.

6. The layout and complexity of menus.

As we said, prioritise simplicity and readability over all kinds of elegant designs.

Customers may have difficulty finding what they want if your menu is cluttered with countless images or text. Even if they’re finally able to make a choice, the menu would have demanded significant cognitive effort, which is a burden and will reduce your revenue.

While exploring competitors’ menus, you’ll most likely come across those that contain only text with no images whatsoever — high-end restaurants also use such menus. The layout is typically straightforward, consisting of two or three columns. Learning how to design a menu layout properly will help you achieve such simple and profitable designs.

However, you don’t want to divide your menu into two columns, with one column for prices and the other for dishes. Such a menu usually makes customers feel uncomfortable.

When pricing figures appear in one place, people tend to compare them. As a result, many customers may feel pressured to choose a relatively cheap dish, even if that wasn’t their top choice.

7. Your menu should have pleasing aesthetics.

This simply means your menu should be great to look at.

We know the most important thing for customers is a simple design that is highly readable and takes no more than 2 minutes to study. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t inject some beauty into the design. A text-only menu can be made to look beautiful, depending on the layout, fonts, colour combination, and text arrangement.

The overall size of your menu also plays a role in how customers perceive its beauty. An extensive menu with a seemingly infinite list of dishes might be so overwhelming that they’ll ignore its beautiful design since all their mental energy is channelled towards identifying the best dish.

Typically, your menu shouldn’t be too long or too broad that the customer, while examining it, can’t see the person sitting at the following table. Learning how to design your menu effectively will help in producing a sleek shape that’s just perfect.

8. Does your menu use psychology?

The most crucial menu psychology revolves around four things:

  1. Placement
  2. Verbiage
  3. Pricing
  4. Symbols
How to place the menu items.

When people pick up a menu, their eyeballs scan it almost the same way they do newspapers — it follows a Z-pattern.

This scanning pattern means they’ll focus on items in the top right-hand space of the menu, then move down the middle, then to the bottom left, and finally, the bottom right-hand area. Their eyes will follow a similar pattern repeatedly in their effort to compare the dishes.

Make sure you reserve these critical spots or “real estate” for the dishes you want to sell more of. The top right and middle areas are the best, followed by the top left, bottom right, and bottom left locations.

You can further support this pattern of psychology with the anchoring effect — a form of cognitive bias. The anchoring effect is a manipulative strategy that seeks to downplay the expensiveness of an item.

How to use the anchoring effect.

To use the anchoring effect, place your “hero” items in the most valuable spots and then precede them with overly expensive dishes. The goal is for customers to first see the expensive dishes before and right next to your “hero” dishes (which are your best-earning dishes).

The idea is to make your “hero” dishes look cheap in comparison. Naturally, this influences the customer’s choice and perception of the value.

Add visual emphasis to the “hero” dishes to make them stand out and, therefore, get more attention from customers. This is how to design a menu that leaves a solid psychological impression.

Alternatively, add money to your “hero” dishes and offer a discount afterwards. For example, if your target is $70 for a “hero” dish, you can price it $100 and then place a 30% discount on it.

This is more effective than listing it as $70. However, endeavour to remove all currency symbols from your prices because it may remind customers of parting with their cash and make them cautious about spending. Finally, use proper verbiage to describe your dishes.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many dishes should be on a menu?

No fixed number acts as the standard item count for restaurant menus. Experts recommend different figures from 7 to 32.

We believe your menu layout should dictate the ideal number of items, but you mustn’t add more than 32. Too many options on the menu confuse customers and also waste their time.

What should be included in a menu?

This article points out that a menu has several features, visible and concealed. Your menu should include the name and descriptions of the dishes. Moreover, prices and separation lines or spaces must be clear. You should also incorporate menu psychology and ensure good colour contrast between the background and text.

What are some common mistakes in restaurant menu design?

Some common menu design mistakes include:

  • Wrong fonts
  • Poor background-to-text contrast
  • Using currency symbols
  • Adding too many items
  • Putting prices in one column
  • Poor verbiage
  • Dull descriptions

What’s the most important consideration in menu planning?

There are three things you must consider when planning a menu, including:

  • your customers,
  • the competition, and
  • your unique offers.

Know what customers want before you can sell it to them. Also, learn about what the competition is doing so you don’t implement the wrong menu policies. Finally, try distinguishing yourself in the market to build a unique brand.

Conclusion

We’ve seen how to design a menu for a restaurant in a way that increases sales. Summarily, your menu should be readable, simple, beautiful, and psychologically charged. All of these contribute to making customers buy any targeted dishes.

Restaurants use various menu tricks to influence your choice and perception of value. Learn to use these tricks, too, or you’ll make way less money than you could.

If you use a paper menu, you should consider moving over to a digital menu to make these changes much easier. Digital menus allow you to make changes and iterate quickly - you can get started with Menuzen today..