How to Write Menu Descriptions that People Want to Read
Did you know that the average diner will spend less than 2 minutes reading your restaurant menu?
Some people will only peruse the entrees, and some will beeline straight for their favorite protein. And some cheapos will just skim prices, looking for the lowest number they can find. (I feel you, fellow cheapos.) So you don’t have a lot of time to sell your best dishes.
With limited real estate and even more limited attention spans, you need to make your menu descriptions helpful and enticing.
So here are some menu writing tips that will put the winner in your dinner.
Draw an accurate picture
Word choice is important, and space is limited. Generic terms that describe the tastiness of your food aren’t adding anything. Obviously you think the food is great. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be on the menu at all.
Qualifying words like “delicious” and “excellent” are just filler. They don’t add any helpful information.
Instead, your word choice should help to paint a picture. Start with how each menu item is cooked. Slow-roasted? Grilled? Seared? These familiar terms help the reader understand the characteristics of the food. If a steak is seared, it will have a nice crust on the outside while still being perfectly juicy on the inside. If pork is slow-roasted, guests will expect it to be fall-off-the-bone tender. And if your mashed potatoes are described as “whipped”, they better be like fluffy little potato clouds.
Describing flavors and textures can also help. A pan sauce may be rich, while a cilantro crema could tangy. Crispy veggies could be either gently steamed or deep fried.
Dive deep into the preparation with your chef. Ask about the cooking methods, and what those mean for the finished dish.
And don’t just look at the recipe and cherry-pick items at random for the restaurant menu description. Discuss what flavors the dish is highlighting. A dish may contain lemon, but it may simply add acidity rather than lemon flavor. So take the chef out for a cup of coffee (or bourbon) and work your way through the menu, discussing what you should highlight and what flavors you want to bring forward.
Stay on brand
Your menu is only one piece of the guest experience. It must work with the decor, service style, and atmosphere to make sense to patrons.
Just because you thought of a hilarious punny name for your shrimp cocktail (Shrimply the Best, get it??), that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for a high-end seafood restaurant.
Similarly, a cozy home-style cafe that serves chicken fried steak and covers everything in gravy (yum) has no business using terms like “deconstructed” or “crème fraîche.”
If you get stuck, ask one of your best servers to describe a dish to you. What expressions do they use? It can also help to read your descriptions out loud as you write. If it sounds too formal to you, it will sound too formal to diners.
Keep it consistent
It’s also important to keep to a flow throughout your menu. It’s very jarring to read something like this:
⅓ lb of freshly ground chuck topped with garlicky crimini mushrooms and lemon chèvre
⅓ lb ground chuck smothered in slow-cooked pork and topped with tangy BBQ sauce and red onion
Confit chicken breast topped with crisp lettuce and tomato, and finished with house-made honey mustard
Our house-made veggie burger is made of black beans, walnuts, and beets.
It’s topped with herbed goat cheese and sauteed yellow onion.
Whoa! We were in a groove, and then the veggie burger went rogue with complete sentences and periods. You don’t have to follow a formula necessarily, but make it easy for readers to create a mental checklist as they read. It will help them to visualize each dish.
Common pitfalls include and vs. &, periods at the end of some descriptions and not others, and price inconsistency, like $6 vs. $6.00.
Check the spelling & grammar
Before your menu goes to print, check the spelling and grammar. Check it twice. Run spell checks on apps like Grammarly, Ginger Grammar Checker, or maybe Reverso. Ask someone you trust to review it carefully to make sure it’s consistent and readable.
Ask the chef to look it over too. They know the food better than anyone, so the food descriptions should be important to them.
I often see some very strange capitalization in menu writing. “Chicken” is not a proper noun. Unless it appears at the beginning of the description, there is no need to capitalize it. If it’s not a person’s name (beef Stroganoff) or a location (Brussels sprouts), it does not need to be capitalized.
And Please Don’t Capitalize Every Word. It makes your menu harder to read.
Cluster the farm names
People like to know if restaurants are supporting local farms. So if you have one special protein that comes from a local farm, include it!
But if you are trying to add “Mr. Busybee’s Happy Place Farm tomatoes” to the description of every dish that has a tomato on it, you’ll be adding a ton of unnecessary text.
A better approach? Add a little box somewhere in a corner of the menu with a note about the local farms you support. It could say, “We love to support our local farmers. We use fresh produce from Mr. Busybee’s Happy Place Farm whenever possible!” Now you’ve done two important things. First, you’ve added it once instead of 14 times. And second, you’ve given yourself an out. If Mr. Busybee’s farm is hit by tomato blight and you have to buy from Sysco until he recovers, you won’t have to reprint your menu (or lie to your customers).
Think carefully about “ingredients-as-description”
When you’re trying to write menu descriptions, it can be tempting to go with a clean list of ingredients. But personally, I’m not a fan.
perch – dandelion greens – turmeric foam – potato – essence of asparagus
Does that sound appetizing? I don’t know what that is, so I’m probably not going to order it. And if it’s one of your best and most interesting dishes, that’s a real shame.
Instead, how about:
Grilled filet of perch topped with turmeric foam. Served with sautéed dandelion greens and roasted red bliss potatoes spritzed with essence of asparagus.
I know what that is. I’m still probably not going to order it, but at least I can now visualize the dish.
Now, I understand that this may be controversial. Many high-end restaurants do this, including my two favorite places in Austin for a special night out. It creates a minimalist, clean aesthetic on the menu and gives the server a chance to have a conversation about the food with the patrons.
While I acknowledge that it can work, your food and service must be absolutely stellar to back this up. The menu writing is doing none of the heavy lifting, so you will need a great reputation and well-trained staff to entice diners and make sense of the food.
No need to state the obvious
Don’t tell people what they already know. You don’t have to describe your lasagna as “wide noodles delicately layered with cheese and sauce”. That’s literally the definition of lasagna. If someone doesn’t know what lasagna is, they’ll ask.
Instead, focus on what makes your dish special — especially if it’s a classic. If you use local small-batch mozzarella and house-made noodles in your lasagna, that’s worth talking about.
On menu pricing
If you spend about five minutes looking for tips on menu writing or engineering, you’ll very quickly find some interesting claims about menu pricing and dollar signs.
For example, one established piece of wisdom is that you should remove dollar signs from the menu entirely. An oft-cited study by Cornell University in 2009 showed that customers in an upscale casual restaurant spent an average of 8% more when there were no dollar signs.
Another best practice says you shouldn’t list prices in one single row on the side of the menu, because it encourages guests to just skim the menu for the cheapest item.
There are also some menu design tips, like putting items with the best food cost in the top right, where it’s most likely to be viewed.
As I am not a menu engineer or a psychiatrist, I simply say — let’s respect our customers. A price-conscious diner is going to search for the prices, regardless of where they’re placed. And at this point, so many restaurants have removed dollar signs based on that 2009 study that I’d be very curious to see if the increase in spending still holds true.
You can certainly test these theories to see if they lead to an increase in check average. But a well-written menu, warm service, and excellent food will win over menu tricks every time.
Make mouths water
When you write menu descriptions, give them your full attention. They should be more than just an afterthought, something to check off the to-do list. The chef didn’t just throw ingredients together to create the dish. So respect the food.
Make it sound as pretty as it tastes.
Header photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
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