“There’s actually a lot of psychology at play when writing a menu”. Cissy Difford takes us on a quick jaunt down memory lane to 4000 years ago, when the first menu was carved into a stone as a gift to the ancient gods, through to the Song Dynasty and into the 18th century when menus first appeared in Europe.
Are you the kind of person that reads the restaurant menu online and mentally signs off on what you’re going to eat before you’ve even stepped foot in the restaurant? Or do you arrive hopeful and unswayed in your decision because you want to keep an element of surprise to your dining experience? Whichever side you fall on, we can all agree that the menu plays a huge role in our restaurant experience. They are scrawled in handwriting on chalkboards, printed on thick gsm paper, laminated in a display book or accessed via a QR code. These little things you see at the beginning of your meal might seem insignificant but are one of the first impressions you get of your chosen restaurant. Not only this but they are historical documents that tell us so much about that .
For me, menus are also references that inform my work. I’ll often browse my favourite places online and see what they are offering as a way to seek inspiration and stay up to date on trends. However, the way menus are written these days leaves a lot to the imagination (perhaps too much). I’m talking about the short, two or three ingredients listed, type menus, where you’re left guessing how these are all going to come together on your plate. Meanwhile frantically searching Instagram to help fill in the blanks. When did this way of writing menus become so popular and is it here to stay?
Well, let’s first take a quick jaunt down memory lane to 4000 years ago, when the first menu was carved into a stone as a gift to the ancient gods, through to the Song Dynasty and into the 18th century when menus first appeared in Europe. During this period, menus were employed by the French upper class to bring an added extravagance to their home banquets, whilst everyone else was assigned to less formal dinners in local taverns. These menus were printed on broadsheets, crammed with numerous dishes, written in cursive lettering, and encased in a decorative border. This design reflected fine dining and the spirit of aristocracy. However, at the turn of the century and after World War II, when eating out became more commonplace, creating a menu that stood out from the rest became a competitive game.
Physical menus were printed with bold graphics resembling large advertisements, they mirrored art movements and even reacted to cultural events (think satirical New Yorker cartoons and pop art). Later on, menu design was squashed in favour of heavily detailed descriptions of dishes, listing methods, cuts and techniques. In the 2000s it became more favourable and advantageous to ditch the long cooking details to focus on suppliers and producers, which offered up a more to the dish and restaurant. Until about a decade ago when the scales tipped again, this time in favour of ultra-minimalist design and description.
It was of course the Nordics that helped influence the evolution of the traditional menu to one that is much more concise. I sit on the fence about this style. On one hand, I see all the benefits of listing ingredients in this staccato style. Writing ‘carrot, buttermilk’ gives the chef more scope to be creative while also creating an element of surprise for the customer. On the other hand, I see how there’s potentially something lost here when we don’t know what we’re getting or how it’s been made. How is the diner fully able to appreciate and credit what Sarah has spent all day preparing? Another query I have is when I’m handed a piece of paper with this minimal text and met with the question, ‘Do you need me to explain how it works?’ When this happens my level of intrigue goes from 10 to 2. If the ‘concept’ is beyond my mental capacity, I’m not sure I want to buy into it and it makes me wonder if the ‘foodie’ world can get any more cliquey. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned starters, mains and desserts?
Two words are seemingly much more fascinating than we might assume. Nowadays, ‘the menu’ is a topical discussion, from podcasts to tv shows and first date chats. We discuss in great detail our ‘dream menu’, our ‘desert island dishes’ and our ‘death row meals’. Being able to pick and choose our favourite courses brings us so much joy and potential friendship.
It’s funny then to think that every day, all over the world, chefs are getting to do this thing that we all fantasize about. It’s so otherworldly that we’re even willing to pay extra money to sit at ‘the chef’s table’ where we’re invited to gawk at their every move. So, when we enter a restaurant and are handed a menu it has the potential to fulfil some of these fantasies. Not only this but the physical piece of paper acts as a binding agreement between customer and chef. By choosing a dish we are effectively signing the dotted line and agreeing to trust that person and their skills. If there’s nothing of interest, the customer has the agency to get up and leave. So why are we making these documents so cryptic and unassuming?
Well, there’s actually a lot of psychology at play when writing a menu. The customer might never consider the placement of the most expensive dish or whether there are currency symbols or not, but they all play a part in swaying the customer’s decision. Perhaps this is why I prefer to see more descriptions because it helps me order better and in turn bolsters my confidence in decision making. There are many others like me but there are also those who don’t care about superlatives because they prefer cold hard facts (what the dish is and how much it costs), or those who want to engage with the server and ask lots of questions or those who saw a dish online and ordered it because they trust someone else’s decision making. Ultimately, we are all trying to leave the restaurant satisfied, not only in the belly but intellectually.
What’s more, when we’re handed a menu we are handed a physical piece of advertisement for that business. To be placed in the palm of your consumer so easily is any big brand’s dream, so why are we not taking advantage of it? I understand sleek, minimalistic printouts offer a strategic marketing tool that nudges you in a certain direction, possibly making the restaurant feel more luxurious or perhaps it’s in keeping with that restaurant’s brand / ethos. But if like a big fashion brand, who plasters billboards on the sides of every street with the hope you’ll go into their store, buy an item and take it home, maybe restaurants could think in the same way. Could we make menus those keepsake items that we take home and cherish?
I’ve often taken home menus from restaurants, either because the ingredients have offered inspiration, it holds an emotional value for me or it’s aesthetically pleasing. The latter is not very common. In most cases, menus are quite bland. In fact, I can’t remember any from anywhere I’ve eaten recently because they always look the same. There are of course a handful of places that offer a more imaginative piece of paper. These are the ones worth keeping. In fact, I’ve seen this case in point in some Architectural Digest-esque TV show where a woman had framed a menu and hung it on her bedroom wall (see image below). This memento is charged with an emotional value for her, it’s almost similar to the way you would cherish the act of passing down recipes from generation to generation.
Is my argument flawed? Yes, quite possibly. I’m not oblivious to the fact that there are limitations in creating menus in this way. Things to consider are the costs of printing, designing, commissioning an artist, printing again because there was a typo, wasting paper in the process, the sustainability of it all and then there’s the fact that it’s really about the food not the paper it’s printed on. But perhaps there is a way we can merge the minimalist present and the artistic past. I think of Assassination Custard where the handwritten menu on a brown paper bag offers up a level of character and charm that doesn’t break the bank. I’m definitely ready for some sort of menu renaissance. As long as the future doesn’t only hold QR codes (because seriously, where is the soul in that?) then I’ll be happy.
Cissy Difford is a pastry chef. You can subscribe to monthly tales, fails and recipes –
Cissy is a guest contributor to the Ómós Digest Newsletter where this article originally appeared.