When you’re on the hunt for an exciting new restaurant to try, where do you first look for information? You might scour reviews or check out various social media pages, but nothing gets those cravings going quite like a gorgeous menu design. This simple resource can play heavily into your decision to eat out.

While strategic menu design has always been an important aspect of restaurant marketing, it’s more valuable than ever now that menus are so easily accessible online.

These days, restaurant visitors expect to browse menus at their leisure long before they arrive at your establishment. Give them the details they crave, and they’ll feel compelled to check out your most enticing dishes in person. Neglect this essential task, however, and you can expect customers to head straight for your competitors.

The ideal restaurant menu is concise, relevant, attractive, and easy to navigate. This can feel like a lot to take on, but restaurant-oriented web design doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply apply these best practices for how to design a restaurant menu.

Stay true to your brand

Before developing your menu, you should understand your target audience and how you can appeal to these key visitors.

What is your restaurant’s mission? Which values do you hold dear? These should be conveyed in a menu that feels consistent with other branding efforts. From imagery to color and font, every detail plays into brand consistency (or lack thereof).

For example, a contemporary sushi restaurant could opt for a minimalist menu featuring clean lines and neutral colors. Meanwhile, the menu for a laid-back, kid-friendly restaurant may benefit from bright and bold pictures, along with distinctive colors and whimsical fonts.

As you strive for brand consistency, don’t forget the language itself. Phrasing can play a huge role in how your menu is perceived.

Concise yet sophisticated descriptions support branding for the sushi restaurant mentioned above, while simple yet cheerful entries work better at casual, kid-oriented venues.

Don’t forget to incorporate keywords, which are often included on “home” and “about us” pages but are sometimes forgotten for digital menus. Optimized keywords will make your menu — and website — easier for search engine users to find.

Stick to one or two pages

In shows like Kitchen Nightmares and Hotel Hell, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay invariably recommends that restaurateurs simplify their multi-page menus. While these reality shows may be sensational, this particular initiative is actually based in reality — restaurant visitors appreciate choices, but not too many. The more pages you tack on, the more time they spend scrolling, and the less they’ll ultimately end up ordering.

This concept underscores the complications of decision fatigue, in which people struggle to make choices when faced with too many options. In a groundbreaking study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants who were encouraged to choose from dozens of jams or chocolates ultimately demonstrated less satisfaction with their selection.

If you’re struggling to condense your menu into a page or two without drastically changing the font size or cramming each section with text, then it might be time to overhaul your approach. Consider simplifying. Focus on a handful of entrees, appetizers, and desserts your restaurant handles best.

Cutting down your menu is never easy. As you choose which dishes are worthy of your restaurant, consider: what do visitors actually order? Which menu items are most frequently mentioned on social media or in online reviews?

Don’t forget to brand consistently. Ask yourself: do all dishes keep up with your restaurant’s atmosphere? Returning, once again, to the contemporary sushi example, fondue might not be ideal for a streamlined menu.

Create separate breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus

If you struggle to limit the scope of your menu because you serve different meals (or use different pricing models) at various times of the day, minimize scrolling and page-flipping by developing multiple menus. These should be easy to locate on your website; simply add a drop-down area with the header “menus.” From there, users can browse the menus they find most compelling.

Screenshot of Boshamps online menu
Boshamps strategically categorizes menu items to limit the need for scrolling or switching pages.

Each menu should be all-encompassing for that meal. This will prevent users from needing to switch between menus as they plan their dining experience. For example, instead of creating separate menus for drinks, appetizers, and entrees, add all three to a single dinner menu.

Divide menu items into categories

In addition to categorizing your menu based on the time of day, split it into groups that reference various types of dishes or beverages. These can be simple (e.g. starters, sides, or mains) or specific. One Mexican restaurant might feature categories such as tacos, fajitas, and enchiladas, while another may emphasize main ingredients in the headers such as chicken, beef, or vegetarian.

No matter which types of categories you select, your menu should be broken up with headers to make it easier to scan. Ideally, each category will include no more than eight items. However, the ideal layout may differ based on whether you prefer an a la carte approach or use a less flexible option such as a tasting menu or a prix fixe setup.

List menu items sequentially

The typical restaurant experience begins with an appetizer or salad before moving on to an entree, and finally, dessert. Not all visitors order items from every category, but they still expect to see offerings placed sequentially based on when specific dishes are typically enjoyed. 

For a tasting menu, a sequential approach will provide a preview of every dining experience, complete with information about each course. With a la carte, however, sequential listing simply means featuring starters, soups, and salads earlier on in the menu, while covering main courses, desserts, and sides later.

Optimize for mobile

Mobile-friendliness is a key aspect of modern menu design. Easy-to-view menus can generate foot traffic if optimized for local search. These should be simple to navigate on the go but memorable enough to get nearby diners excited.

To get their menus online as quickly and easily as possible, many restaurants allow website visitors to download PDF versions of their menus. These typically look identical to the physical menus found at the restaurant.

Unfortunately, although beneficial in that it gets menus online, this approach limits accessibility for many users. Problems include:

  • Constant scrolling. Phone screens are too small to make viewing PDF menus practical or comfortable. While users can strategically swipe or pinch to zoom in and out, they may need to scroll extensively to find the information they desire. During this process, users may get lost or even miss entire sections of the menu.
  • Limited accessibility. PDF menus are problematic from an accessibility standpoint. Users with vision impairments may be unable to browse menus without screen readers or magnifiers. 
  • Excessive editing. Editing can feel like a constant ordeal when menus remain in PDF format. Restaurants that offer seasonal items or regularly rotate their tasting menus may not be able to dedicate enough time to revising PDFs. This may lead to outdated digital menus.
  • Poor SEO. PDF files do nothing for search engine optimization. With an HTML format, keywords can easily be incorporated into content to make your page easier for search engine users to find. While SEO is possible with PDFs, it requires a separate strategy that can be difficult for novices to navigate. What’s more, PDF files are inferior in the eyes of top search engines, as they lack the metadata on which these services typically rely.

A better alternative is to design a mobile-friendly menu. Using Constant Contact’s Website Builder, you can select the “menu” category and choose between a variety of templates. From there, you can add key information, such as flavor profiles, ingredients, and photos.

Place important information in the upper lefthand corner

From books to webpages and menus, most people scan text from left to right and top to bottom. This tendency turns your menu’s upper lefthand corner into prime real estate. Take advantage of this key area by featuring the most important information there. This can be an excellent spot for highlighting menu items that produce the highest profit margins.

Avoid currency signs

Customers want to know how much menu items cost, but only up to a point. Constant reminders of how much they’re about to spend may keep diners from ordering that extra beverage or dessert. To prevent them from focusing on prices, remove currency signs from your menu.

The value of avoiding currency symbols can be seen in a study published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management. Researchers found that diners spent, on average, eight percent more after viewing menus that lacked dollar signs. Spelling numbers out, however, did not have a discernible impact on spending.

Use accent colors to make your menu pop

Choose one or two bright colors to build contrast into your menu. Accent colors are especially effective for highlighting category names or top entrees. With too many different colors, however, you’ll struggle to capture diners’ attention.

Screenshot of Pequod's online menu design
Pequod’s sticks to its Moby Dick theme with its eye-catching color strategy, emphasizing toppings with a blue burst.

If possible, select colors that fit your restaurant’s theme or appeal to your target audience. This helps you maintain consistent branding to provide a more cohesive restaurant experience.  A seafood restaurant, for example, may accent its menu with shades of blue. Vibrant pops of orange or red can capture diners’ attention on a menu for a tropical-themed restaurant.

Choose photos carefully

A few well-placed photos will get customers excited about your restaurant’s top dishes. Too many, however, and your menu could quickly feel cluttered. If you’re aiming for a streamlined look, stick to a maximum of one photo per menu category. Otherwise, develop a structured design that incorporates several photos while still looking purposeful.

When choosing images for your menu, consider which high-profit options you’d like to encourage diners to order. Another key factor includes which meals fit best with your color scheme and general menu design. 

High-end photography is essential; you’re better off with no images than low-quality pictures. To improve menu photos, use soft natural lighting when possible and avoid harsh shadows. Add garnishes to bring visual interest to monochromatic dishes.

As you position the dish within the frame, avoid fancy perspectives, which are better for Instagram. Instead, keep it simple with basic pictures that accurately convey favorite menu items. Let the food do the talking.

Try illustrations instead of photos

Trendy, contemporary restaurants often opt for simple illustrations in lieu of photography. These are especially ideal for minimalist menus, where photos of even the most enticing meals may appear too busy to fit in with the rest of the design. As with photography, however, illustrations should be used sparingly. Otherwise, your entire menu can take on a messy, unprofessional appearance.

Provide QR codes for a contactless visit

While many people look to digital menus as previews before they visit restaurants, this can also be a great solution for developing a contactless ordering process. To encourage this approach, provide easy access to QR codes for customers to scan. These are beneficial not only because they limit physical contact but also reduce printing costs and help you gather valuable insights into customer behavior.

QR codes can be situated in several locations throughout your restaurant, such as:

  • At the entrance, so visitors can view your menu before they head inside
  • Near waiting areas, which allows customers to choose their meal before they’re seated
  • On menu cards at every table as well as cards placed around the bar

Take your menu design to the next level

Now you know what constitutes an effective menu, it’s time to take your menu design strategy to the next level. Start today by optimizing your menu for mobile to ensure that guests can access it on the go. The effort you dedicate towards improving online menu accessibility will be well-rewarded.

If you’d like additional insight into how to handle other aspects of restaurant marketing — check out Constant Contact’s marketing guide, The Download. This helpful resource, tailored to your unique concerns in the competitive culinary industry, includes a wealth of information on search engine optimization, email marketing, and much more.