Menus And The People Who Write Them Badly

Why is it so hard to find properly written menus? Some are too concise and offer no details; others can't shut up. Below are twelve helpful hints for people doing menu writing.


1. Translate them, and translate them well.

Everyone has a funny story about a mis-translated menu. Stir-fried Wikipedia, side of vegetarians, meat in colored sauce; the list goes on. If English is not your first language (in which case it's unlikely you're reading this), hire a native speaker to translate your menu. Don't, for heaven's sake, use an online translation tool.

The flip side of this is not wielding another language–particularly French or Italian–as a club. It's one thing to talk about sole bonne femme (though it would be nice to have a footnote as to its contents) or pappardelle al ragù bolognese, but if you're talking about insalata tagliuzzata on a menu in Los Angeles, you're probably just being stuck up.

2. Don't use another language unless you know how.

It's maddening enough to have to go back into the archives of the mind and remember the makeup of sauce charcutière, but when restaurants mistranslate the dish INTO the foreign language, it's even worse. Honestly, if you can't keep mesclun and mescaline separate, just call the salad “mixed greens”.

3. Post them–with prices–on your restaurant's website.

I hate to say it, but I'm a price-conscious diner. Unless I'm dining on OC Weekly's extremely generous expense account for freelancers, I want to know what sort of prices I'm looking at when I'm reading your website, particularly if I'm in an unfamiliar city. I have no idea how much dinner costs in Memphis or Syracuse, and sites like Yelp and Chowhound are no help, because “cheap” and “expensive” are so subjective.

If your prices change too often to keep up with the website, try and give a range–or get yourself a content management system that allows your staff to put in the data in a user-friendly manner. (Why, yes, I am a professional geek!)

4. Verbal diarrhoea isn't any more fun than the regular kind.

There's such a thing as too much detail. I don't need to know who ripened the cheese on your plate; if I'm so concerned about the proper handling of your cheese post-addition of rennet, I will ask. If you're an Alice Watersian locavore, try to keep the origins restricted to just the principal components of the dish; few people care that the cracked black pepper was from Dubondubondubonnet Farms in Pasco, Washington.

If you've absolutely got to list a catalogue, at least give the diners the courtesy of an executive summary in bold font as the first item; include all the gratuitous culinary onanism in standard print or italics below.

5. One menu is plenty, thanks.

I went to a Vietnamese restaurant a while back that had four menus: the standard menu, the vegetarian menu, the tea list and the alcohol list. Trying to juggle all four was unbelievably frustrating, and we sounded and looked like drunken sots trying to reach over each other for menus. Certainly, wine lists are normally kept separate, but all the food that's going to be ordered together ought to be presented in one folder.

6. One menu per diner, however, is required.

If your host or hostess is seating a six-top and plunks five menus down, he or she ought to be lectured soundly and forced to do penance in the back of the walk-in. One menu per diner is the rule, and this goes for specials menus as well. It just avoids the embarrassing “you first, no you first” dance, which gets the table off to an irritated start.[
7. Leave the congratulations to the diners.

Award mentions don't belong in your menu. I'm sorry, they just don't. Post the “they love us on Yelp” sticker in the front window, hang up the framed copies of the local paper's restaurant reviews in the lobby, leave the chef's James Beard award under glass at the host desk, but none of this needs to go on the menu.

I have a friend who, upon seeing a note about “award-winning pasta” at an Italian joint in New York's Hell's Kitchen, felt bad for the gnocchi, wrote “BEST GNOCCHI ON NINTH AVE” on a cocktail napkin, and presented it to the baffled waiter.

8. Don't pontificate.

How ironic that this instruction is in a list pontificating about how to write menus. That said, it's irritating to expect a menu and instead get a long treatise about the personal food beliefs of the chef or, worse, the history of the building. People want to read about the food being offered and order some of it, not be treated like little children who need to be educated in the One True Way of Food.

If you feel unable to continue without a bunch of philosophical wordspack, keep it to three sentences.

9. Use a big enough–and a normal enough–font.

If the restaurant is a big, bright, spacious loft in a downtown area with sunlight streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows, by all means use a small font. If you're a dim, formerly smoky old boys' club or a romantic boîte, use clear, non-serif fonts in sizes big enough to be read by 50-year-olds distracted by their 28-year-old secretaries administrative assistants.

Under no circumstances, however, should you be using a script font. Even to native English speakers, these fonts can be hard to read.

10. Interesting layouts usually suck.

Please, please, please, enough with the menus where dishes are called out in ugly boxes that are tipped on their sides. Mexican-American family restaurants, I am talking to you. Leave the bizarre colors, the offset indents, and the cute drawings off. Even columns are easy to read; weird, cock-eyed notes in explosion-style bubbles leave me cold.

In addition, you are not e.e. cummings: capital letters are not optional, and numbers ought to be written as numerals (“jamon serrano and piquillo peppers, eight and a half”–AAAAARGH!).

11. The menu ought to reflect what's currently on offer.

I call this “Soviet Menu Syndrome”. In the USSR, restaurant menus were less a list of the dishes that the kitchen was making than a catalogue of what they'd make if they lived in an ideal world. I learned quickly to ask what there was, rather than what was on the menu.

Any restaurant will run out of food from time to time, especially specials. This can be communicated by the host or the waiter. “I'll get your drinks and be back to take your order; I'm sorry to say, though, we're out of duck tonight.” If this turns into a lecture of a length to require a voice recorder or a notebook, though, consider reprinting the menus–and for Pete's sake, erase specials from the chalkboard or whiteboard when you run out. Don't be a food tease.

12. Include common allergens in the dish.

If you're going to list the ingredients in the dish, make sure you include common allergens. If there are nuts in your salad, just say so, particularly if the salad is an uncommon one or a new rendition of an old classic. “Gorgonzola and pear salad”, for example, often has walnuts in it.

No amount of this is going to solve the whole problem of diners with allergies (or aversions disguised as much more serious-sounding allergies), but nuts and seafood are usually big enough components of a dish to warrant being included in the description.

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