How not to write a menu

19 May 2011 by
How not to write a menu

The menu should be the entry point for customers into your restaurant. But how many menus out there are actively driving away punters with spelling mistakes and silly use of language? Tom Vaughan reports

There's a restaurant, which shall remain nameless, that lists a dish on its menu as: "A nest of tortilla chips, topped with a trio of relishes and drizzled in a warm cheese sauce". That's right, they're talking about nachos. Cheese and jalapenos and guacamole; nachos. It might be an extreme case, but from a business perspective it's no joke for the restaurant involved.

If you like to think that word of mouth will pull in the customers, and - once snared - the atmosphere and cooking will charm them, then you've missed your most obvious marketing trick: the power of the menu. These days, any punter can vet a restaurant online, and - whatever the standard of cooking or the buzz is like - a menu that sounds overly pretentious, creepily chummy or is simply riddled with spelling mistakes can send customers into the arms of your competitors.

Think that's an extreme assessment? For Marina O'Loughlin, restaurant critic at London's Metro newspaper, a menu tells her almost everything she needs to know about a restaurant before she's even set foot in the place: "If it says ‘panache of' or ‘on a bed of' or ‘nestling on' you know you're in for an over-upholstered, constipated atmosphere that reeks of crooked pinkie, usually with those ubiquitous, hideous, high-backed leather dining chairs and the wife will be front of house," she says.

"‘Medley of vegetables' will mean somewhere locked in the end of last century that thinks a few mangetouts in a crescent dish spell sophistication. If it says ‘textures of' it's going to be spare, pared-down and a bit up itself, and the chef wants to grow up and be a nouveau Spaniard. Some menus make me shake my head in pain."

pretentious language

Long-standing restaurant critic of The London Evening Standard Fay Maschler says some of the biggest crimes against menus are committed through the pretentious use of language. "[My bugbears include] ingredients that ‘nestle', ‘relax', ‘recline', ‘drape' or ‘sit atop' a bed of something; musical vocabulary - for example a symphony, a melody, a medley, an arpeggio or whatever; and inappropriate verbs - ingredients shouldn't be smothered, enrobed, drowned, striated or encouraged."

There's often a reason behind this overuse of terms, says Gordon Cartwright, a former inspector for the AA. "Where flowery vocabulary profligates a menu you can be sure that this is to cover up deficiencies in cooking," he says. "I once saw a dish described as ‘loin of lamb levitating over aubergine diamonds, served with the gift of oil'. It was disgusting."

It's not just a pretentious lexicon that can make a menu resemble the scribblings of a chef plummeting towards a breakdown, but overt chumminess as well. Few outside of Jamie Oliver - in fact, no-one outside of Jamie Oliver - can get away with terms such as an "awesome" chocolate and espresso tart or "lovely" buffalo ricotta ravioli, says O'Loughlin. And the Marco Pierre White style of menu, with its strange references, is also best left as a one-man-style, says Liz Carter, editor of The Good Food Guide. "I used to always think those references were in-jokes," she says. "They can really make the customer feel out of it. It's like you need to take a Larousse Gastronomique in with you. The whole point of a menu is about making people feel comfortable and not having to ask for help."

A menu has a simple purpose, adds Derek Bulmer, former editor of the Michelin Great Britain & Ireland, London and Main Cities of Europe guides. "Its raison d'être is to inform, let the customers know what they're getting and to whet the appetite," he says. It's this last point that sends some menu writers gaga, assuming that terms such as ‘nestled' or ‘draped' are subconscious triggers for the saliva glands. But getting the balance between terse, under-informed descriptions and the flowery overuse of language isn't easy: "There's a fine line," says O'Loughlin. "You could write ‘beef with celery' - but how? Is it a casserole? A grill? Cooked or raw celery? But neither do I want a description that goes over more than two lines."

Only an elite handful can get away with the Fergus Henderson terse method of menu writing, according to Carter: "There's two tiers. First there are the top chefs, who can just give me a menu with a list of ingredients and I'd eat it because I trust them. Then there's everyone else, who need to give some clues on the menu as to what they are going to do."

Simple, accessible descriptions that convey the required information shouldn't be that hard to write, but seemingly prove so. One big no-no, according to the critics and former inspectors, is stating the provenance of every ingredient. "Some menus practically give you the e-mail addresses of the asparagus spears," says Maschler. A simple list of suppliers on a menu is enough, adds Bulmer, and is all the evidence customers need that the chef cares where his or her products come from.

It's not even necessary to list all the ingredients, says Carter. If you're going to pop a bit of pickled walnut on a dish, there's really no need to mention it and every other small accompaniment. List no more than five constituents of the dish, Cartwright advises. Want to lose some words? Obvious phrases such as ‘oven-roasted' or ‘pan-fried' for ingredients that are rarely cooked any other way should be the first to go.

Dish descriptions aren't the only things to offer clues to the restaurant. The explanation of ‘concepts' and ‘philosophies' also comes in for a drubbing. "When a restaurant has to explain its ‘concept' it has already lost its way," says Maschler. "Restaurants have a very simple brief - to buy and cook food, serve it to you and charge you. In reality a ‘concept' always means that the kitchen will send out dishes when it suits them - not the customers - in quantities that are either too big or too small."

Also, think long and hard about how you want to present the menu. "I'd much rather have a scruffy piece of paper that's done the rounds that day than a leather-bound book," says Carter. "They belong with places that make gentlemen wear jackets and ties. I hope we've moved on."

The biggest no-no? Literary quotes. "One particular menu from a Michelin-starred restaurant sums up everything I dislike in a restaurant: clenched atmosphere, smugness, foofing around with side dishes," says O'Loughlin. "You can tell it's all going on from this one document. All the signifiers are there: ‘a fillet of' ‘a poached hen's egg' ‘essence of'. The cooking is actually pretty damn fine. But this menu, with its gratingly arch quotes, makes me want to run screaming to the nearest KFC."

For a piece of paper that simply conveys what a diner will eat, menu writing is a minefield of thesaurus-aided words and over exuberance. If you want the best advice, listen to Maschler, who has been eating out in London's restaurants for the Evening Standard since 1972. She says: "If it is printed daily with a date on a piece of white paper and not laminated, if it has a good mix of main ingredients (some familiar and consoling, some adventurous), if it features sustainable fish, has no weaselly charges, no ridiculously lyrical descriptions or strange words that you don't understand, and makes you suddenly very hungry then it is probably the menu of a sound restaurant."

Top tips for menu writing

â- Customers want clues as to the style of the dish - simply listing ingredients will only work for chefs whose reputation precedes them

â- Use English, except in the case of certain national dishes, eg moussaka. Certain menu terms should not be translated, such as consommé

â- Don't list the provenance of separate ingredients - one panel on suppliers will suffice

â- If the concept needs explaining on the menu, it's probably too complicated

â- Avoid anything that isn't there to whet punters' appetites: avoid quotes at all costs

â- Menu copy should be easy to read and well spaced

â- Ensure the main ingredients of each dish are included in descriptions

â- Ensure clear pricing

â- Give emphasis to special dishes or menus by using boxes or different colour print

â- Simplicity is usually better than over-elaborate copy as it is clearer and avoids disappointment that may occur when a dish is served

The best and the worst of menus

Some choice picks from restaurants that shall remain anonymous. With thanks to The Good Food Guide

Scallops, pan seared, placed on vegetable caponata with roasted red peppers and Parmesan crisps complemented by a smooth potato cream

A nest of seasonal melon filled with a lemon and thyme sorbet garnished with complimenting fruit purées

English lamb shank rogan josh, braised with a selection of root vegetables, bay leaf, cardamom, turmeric, chilli, coriander, tomato, garam masala and lemon juice, accompanied by crushed Bombay potatoes and minted yogurt

Good Queen scallop ragoÁ»t, coco beans and lemon thyme

Grilled guinea fowl breast, casserole of leeks and lentils, cockle jus

Filet of beef, red anchovy butter, peppered bone marrow and confit garlic


It's not just the critics that are jaded by bad menus. A recent stream on Twitter, appropriately called #badmenus, saw the public rant on the subject. Here are a few choice entries:

Davidsim Pan-fried. Oven-baked. What next? Grill-grilled?

serenak105 "freshly cooked…" - so nothing else on the menu is fresh…?

lucytweet1 I hate it when menus try to be funny and talk to you like you're friends. I'm looking at you, Nandos

BrettTechLawyer I hate menus categorised for three-year-olds: eg: "Surf, Land, Field"

Howardvaan the word ‘lovingly' should never appear on a menu

Macka7 ‘a medley of' makes me think of bad 80s music and poor wedding DJs

avagardro anything described as a stack; a local cafe here serves an ‘abundance' of chips……aaaaaarrrrrrrgggggghhhhhh

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