Secrets Of A Successful Stand-Out Menu

Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist based in the UK and Spain. He runs his own portfolio of restaurants, and is the consultant brains behind many others. Here he gives his top tips on the dos and don’ts of the perfect restaurant menu.

The menu is the cover your restaurant will be judged on; it’s also the only thing that diners have to look at while they wait for their first drink. Despite this is it often an afterthought. Some decent gastropubs and restaurants offering good-quality, well-cooked food knock pounds off the value of their dishes with a scruffy or ill-curated menu. Food is only worth what people are willing to pay for it and a menu’s job is to build tension, anticipation and atmosphere around the table.

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A menu’s aesthetics should be an extension of the restaurant’s story: how did it evolve, what does it do best and who does it want to attract? It is common sense that photographs on a menu scream more low-end pub or diner than trendy nose-to-tail eatery, but heavy leather-bound almanac-style menus can be a turn off too. Think about the physical space of the site, if you are a counter-style or small plates restaurant then a simple, high-quality paper list is probably the way to go. Equally, if you are eco-driven then don’t betray your values with a non-recycled menu because your audience will notice straight away. In my experience there is never an excuse to laminate unless you cater for an underwater clientele!

People like choice, or they at least like to feel like they have options. Too few items on a menu and people will begin their experience feeling limited; this is especially true of vegetarian diners or those with allergies or other dietary requirements. Conversely, too much choice can confuse diners – the role of a menu is to guide the customer through what dishes are on offer so they can choose something that they will really enjoy. Good-hearted tussling over who will have what and whether the rest of their dinner guests are willing to share for fear of ‘food envy’ and you know you have it spot on. If one person panics and ordering something they probably won’t really enjoy, then the dynamic is spoilt. Eating out is a group affair; one person’s unhappy meal will bring the whole experience crashing down.

Avoid adjectives which tell people that things are ‘delicious’ etc. – nobody likes to be told what to think, and it’s subjective anyway. Long-winded descriptions are outdated and fussy, while trends towards simple, locally-sourced ingredients done well have resulted in a fashion for listing dishes simply by ingredients separated by commas. This is simple and fashionable, but be wary of it when catering for a diverse audience as it can be a little vague. In most cases restaurants want to aim for somewhere in between the two. A menu should include the information a restaurant is proud of: if you are lucky enough to be able to serve Ginger Pig meat then why wouldn’t you scream and shout about it.

We have all heard the joke about ordering the ‘second cheapest’ wine, well the same is true of food. This can be especially true of couples on dates who might be trying to be polite (or not anticipating a second round!). Mix up menu items and encourage eyes to take in the whole selection; most people decide what they are going to order in the first few glances. Positioning more expensive items in prime places is something to consider – certainly don’t hide away your house specialities – but avoid flashy boxes and overly showy presentation as nobody wants to feel pushed into ordering outside of their price comfort zone. Make the higher-priced exciting stuff a desirable treat to indulge in, but let them make up their own minds.

Sides are a great way to up table spend, but should be created because they genuinely enhance the main event. Positioning sides together and including interesting vegetables alongside the staples of chips or potatoes will encourage multiple side orders. Some restaurants make bizarre mistakes like listing sides with starters or under a main including a ‘+chips for £4’. This is unnecessary: people know if they want sides or not and if they don’t need them then do tell them so. What they save on a superfluous side they will likely spend on a pudding or digestif anyway.

Specials can be something of a minefield. Not least because of recent legislation requiring the listing of allergens on menus. The communication of them is also tricky, many times I have misheard the specials and discounted the lot rather than dare make the whole table listen to the waiter repeat it again. Equally, getting up to read a blackboard on the other side of the room can be inconvenient, at its worst resulting in a person standing over other diners attempting to photograph the menu on their phone. A simple rule is this: if you are going to do specials then they should be just that. They should feel genuine – our butcher/fishmonger/forager was able to get hold of this and we couldn’t resist. That means one or two items that are genuinely interesting told by a well-informed waiter with enthusiasm and clarity.

A successful menu will evolve over time. Collecting data and communicating with waiting staff on the front line will give you the clearest indication of what is popular and what needs more work or freshening up. Customers expect a menu to change and the most authentic way to do this is through seasonal ingredients, whilst keeping hold of favourite and signature dishes. Experiment with pricing, serving a more expensive cut of meat for two is often a more affordable way for customers to try something out they might often feel unable or unwilling to afford.

And finally, staff tastings are an absolute must as these are the people that you rely on to guide customers through your restaurant experience. More and more I hear customers asking waiting staff: what’s your favourite dish. Quite right too.

About Diccon Wright

Christopher Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist who has established and grown successful operations in the UK and Mediterranean. He has also worked on a consultancy and advisory basis for a wide range of food and property clients.