Time is not something diners want to waste on reading lengthy menu descriptions. In fact, Vincent Lawrence, partner of Chicago’s casual-dining Chinese spot Imperial Lamian; Nick Dostal, executive chef of Sixteen, a fine-dining restaurant in Chicago; and Clint Woods, chief culinary officer for Fox Restaurant Concepts, are all in agreement on the matter. So it pays to put a lot of thought into every word that goes on a menu.
Click ahead for seven menu-writing tips from interviews with operators who were chosen for the diversity of their operations.
1. Avoid fluff
“Guests do not want to spend too much time reading descriptions,” says Lawrence.
Dostal concurs, saying, “When it comes to the menu, I don’t want the guests to do a lot of thinking.”
As a result, Lawrence and Dostal recommend avoiding adjectives. Instead, Dostal goes for minimalism, listing just three words in menu descriptions: a main ingredient (typically a protein), the most prominent flavor, and finally, what’s accentuating the dish, usually an herb or sauce.
2. Use verbiage to spark conversations
Sixteen features minimalistic menus in part to encourage conversations between the server and the guest, says Dostal. “We rely on the servers to guide the guests so they’re not intimidated by the dishes. They can sell it and make the guest more comfortable,” he says.
“Food is always best described by someone who has eaten it,” says Wood.
4. To foreign language, or not to foreign language?
When it comes to using foreign languages on the menu, the operators have varied opinions. Dostal prefers to “stay away from French words. It intimidates a lot of guests and it’s snooty.”
As an American restaurant, Sixteen features American translations on its menu as much as possible so as not to intimidate guests, says Dostal.
On the other hand, Imperial Lamian spotlights Chinese names and characters next to each menu item “to provide the appeal of authenticity,” says Lawrence.
Whether a foreign language is used or not, “Make it make sense with the restaurant,” says Dostal.
5. Emphasize prep techniques
At Imperial Lamian, “We prefer shorter and concise descriptions,” says Lawrence, but prep techniques are essential to put on the menu because it differentiates the concept. “We make our food fresh and to order at Imperial Lamian, and that is rarely found with most Chinese cuisines.”
Woods agrees, using words like “charred” or “roasted” to highlight a prep technique on the menu. However, he warns, “There are some cooking techniques that taste much better than they read.”
For example, Woods uses the word “crisp” instead of “fried” to avoid reminding people they’re eating fried food; and instead of referring to an ingredient as “pureed,” he uses the term “melted,” because it’s “much more enticing on paper,” says Woods.
6. Quote major publications
Imperial Lamian recently added quotes from major publications about the food and restaurant directly to the menu. “This helps guests feel confident in what they are ordering,” says Lawrence, as it legitimizes the restaurant in the eyes of consumers.
7. Call out the unique
Dostal highlights specific cities or states where ingredients are sourced, as well as unique or rare items, because he wants to be transparent. For example, he would put Maine lobster or a specific heritage item on the menu to showcase where ingredients come from.
Woods does the same, sharing the name of a local farm partner, for example. “Many of our guests today are trying to eat healthier [and] want to know where their food comes from,” he says.