It could come on a chalkboard, a sheet of paper, even elegant vellum. Makes no difference. The menu is a statement of your restaurant’s philosophy—and a crucial piece of its marketing puzzle. “A menu is a vehicle for ordering food, but it is also part of the image and brand of the restaurant,” says Patricia Spencer, a graphic designer who has created menus for Daniel Boulud, Bobby Flay, Drew Nieporent and Stephen Starr. “It’s a very quick experience, but it’s an integral part of the whole.”
Here are six menus that we think best capture all the elements of design, form, function, brand and style.
A Legend Meets Up with the Space Age
To match its slick new decor, the 24-hour Brasserie’s menu turned into a trifold hologram
The revolving door of New York City’s famous Brasserie has been in constant motion since 1959, the year this French-American food hall opened in the ground floor of the Seagram Building. In 2000, when owner Restaurant Associates decided to give the legendary 24-hour hot spot a facelift, they brought in the avant-garde architectural design firm of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. The team updated the space by adding a long, translucent stairway and cloaking the interior in frosted glass, pearwood and terrazzo tile.
For the menu, the designers were charged with creating a vehicle to match the sleek décor and showcase several day parts: breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and late night.
The solution is both functional and stylized—an accordion trifold covered in lenticular, a shiny synthetic fabric that turned the menu into a space-age hologram. In alternating shades of cool blue, lime green and neon yellow, meal periods come and go, fading in and out with the tilt of the hand. The high-tech drama of the menu fits seamlessly with the Brasserie’s futuristic design but is also extremely practical. It allows the physical menu to remain the same all day, with a simple change of paper insert denoting the different meal periods.
“The brasseries in France, with their large menus—that is old news,” says Peter Wyss, VP, director of operations for Restaurant Associates. “We wanted to create a bold new brasserie template for the modern era.” The design was carried out by the architectural team in collaboration with Michael Rock of 2 x 4 Design.
“We wanted to make the Brasserie a total work of art with a sense of the aesthetic vision, and the menu is an important part of that vision,” explains Charles Renfro, a principal in Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. “We had been working on another project with the lenticular material, and Michael Rock thought it would be a great way to make the menu work all day long. There is a cleverness to it in that it coincides with the aspirations of the restaurant.”
Paper that looks like cork blends into the surroundings
Customers at Jsix, a chic restaurant featuring coastal California cuisine and located in San Diego’s Solemar Hotel, may not know why they crave a bottle of wine as soon as they are seated. But the power of suggestion comes from the menu, a handsome bifold made from paper imprinted to look like cork.
The rust-colored cork was a natural choice to complement both chef Deborah Schneider’s eclectic fare—steamed clams with tequila, lime, butter and cilantro and lamb sirloin with mint, garlic, ruby chard and hibiscus chutney are two sample items—and the dining room. The space is marked by organic elements like carved wood flowers and a palate of rust, copper and olive tones.
While the cork was also a material that spoke to the restaurant’s extensive wine list, it was not the ultimate reason for choosing the material. “The wine list was part of the decision to use the cork, but the goal was to have something stylish, hip and sophisticated,” says Andrew Freeman, a marketing consultant to the Kimpton Group restaurant. “We wanted it to be kind of cool and match the room, which is contemporary and sleek but filled with natural elements.”
The menu sets the stage for what the dining experience will be, Freeman adds. “When we design a menu, we figure out what we want it to communicate based on the concept, and then we discuss durability issues.”
The cork paper was discovered at an art supply store prior to Jsix’s opening. It is a lot more affordable than real cork, but to make it more durable, the paper was backed with cardboard. “The advantage of the cork pattern is that the menu can get a little tattered and still look okay,” says Freeman. “That’s very important because the menu is the one thing that gets into everybody’s hands.”
A Clipboard That Doubles as a Fancy Menu
Its look is strictly government issue, a clever nod to days gone by
Dining at Public—an edgy Australian-fusion restaurant where grilled kangaroo sits atop coriander falafel and ravioli are stuffed with snails and oxtails—is often an exercise in culinary adventure. But it’s not only the offerings on chef Brad Farmerie’s menu that attract attention. The menu itself is rare. It is a lean brass clipboard fitted with what appears to be a record ledger from a government office. The ledger sheet has two columns—one for items and another for expenses. But instead of widgets and their unit costs, you’ll find starters and mains with their corresponding prices.
The menu, which is hand-stamped and numbered as a government ledger might be, fits seamlessly into Public’s overall design—an ode to the municipal buildings of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. It meshes with the other design elements in the dining room: vintage card catalogues, walls of brass mailboxes and a round-faced school clock.
Both the menu and the restaurant were designed by the award-winning firm of AvroKo, a team of four young designers whose goal was to weave the essence of the public space theme into the menu design. “We looked at a lot of office forms, library standards, old ledgers and business books from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s to find one form that distilled all of those elements,” explains William Harris, AvroKo’s graphic designer.
But function was also a key factor in the design process. “We custom created the long forms in a size that was manageable and comfortable for a diner. The menu is not bulky or too big; it’s thin and easy to handle,” Harris says.
“The menu has a function. It’s not just décor—it is very practical. It should be easy to store and easy to use, but there is a strong conceptual and visual tie to the space, so much so that people think the menus are vintage.”
Read It and Eat
Smart use of newsprint turns the menu into a must-read
Newspapers are placed at every table at Dine, a 1940s-styled diner with a menu of upscale homestyle American fare—blue plates like hearty meatloaf, shepherd’s pie and fried chicken. But the folks at this retro Chicago eatery aren’t reading the Tribune or the Sun Times. They’re reading the menu, a clever paper bifold backed in reproduced newsprint from the recent White Sox championship games with a headline that reads, “World Series Chicago Style.”
To connect the newspaper-as-menu to the casual American ’40s-era diner concept, designer Bob Puccini, creative director of the Puccini Group, printed three versions of the menu with the restaurant’s tagline. Across the graying newsprint, in maroon American Typewriter font, one version reads DINE, another says DRINK and the last, EAT.
“When you look around the room and it’s full, you get a sea of newspaper printed with the words Drink, Eat, Dine. The effect is great. And the newsprint aspect makes it look like everyone is reading the newspapers, like people do in diners,” Puccini says. “We wanted the menu to be surprising and upscale, but simply designed. The menu works because, like the restaurant, it’s approachable, relaxed and fun.”
Is It a Menu or a Magazine?
That depends; either way, it’s kid-friendly and parent-approved
Keeping kids entertained, happy and, if possible, in their seats throughout a meal, are a parent’s chief goals when dining with their kids. But at Mitchell’s FishMarket, a 14-unit chain based in Columbus, the problem may be getting children to leave. Mitchell’s Menu and Sea of Activities is an eight-page menu-as-magazine, with word search puzzles, number games, jumbles, riddles, art, even a lesson in how to turn the menu into a sailor hat.
“We wanted activities that would entertain the child for the entire meal and waiting process,” says VP of marketing Carolyn Delp. “And it had to have broad appeal so there are enough activities for both little ones and older children.”
But the menu does more than appeal to kids’ creative side. It also caters to their appetite, with choices for Little Fish (kids 2 to 5 years old) including Chicken Fingers, Grilled Cheese and Fish and Chips and for Big Fish (6- to 10-year-olds), like a 4-ounce “Captain’s Filet,” Shrimp Garganelli and Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes.
“Knowing that our restaurant is in the category of upscale casual (the average check at dinner is $35), we felt that it was very important to make children feel comfortable,” says Delp. “We didn’t call it a children’s menu because we didn’t want to embarrass the older child. In Big Fish, we offer larger portions for young adults who don’t want to order from the kid’s menu because portions are too small and the choice is limited. Even an upscale fine-dining restaurant should have a clear strategy to service guests at any age.”
Send us a Postcard
Okay, so it’s really a menu—with 45 items on it no less
Sit down to dinner at Landmarc, a sexy bistro in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, and you will find what appears to be a 3x5 postcard at each setting. In clean sans serif font across the center, the postcard reads: Landmarc. And down in the far right corner, you’ll see the word “menu.” It is then that you realize this postcard is more than meets the eye. “We wanted the menu to be on the table when customers sat down, and we wanted it to be something that people could take with them if they cared to,” explains Pamela Schein Murphy, who owns Landmarc with her husband, chef Marc Murphy. “The design had to be small enough to sit on the table but big enough to fit the menu on one page.”
This was a serious challenge for a restaurant with over 45 menu choices. What designer Antonia Ludes came up with was an 11x17 sheet that could be printed in house and then folded down to index-card size. To capture the essence of the restaurant’s esoteric industrial design—the room is cloaked in raw steel, exposed brick and bare wood—she added a steel-colored photograph of strands of raw rope to the face of the folded-down menu.
“We wanted the menu presentation to be ‘Wow, that is cool!’ but also practical, easy to navigate and easy to read,” explains Schein Murphy. “Landmarc is a casual restaurant that still feels very pulled together, and we wanted the menu to reflect that as well.” But there is also a sense of discovery attached to the menu that makes it special. “It feels like you are unwrapping something like a gift.” And that, as they say, is priceless.