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Word power! – The perfect tone for menus

By: Reading Time: 5 Minutes
Previous Article Flagship Fantastic

Choices, choices! Customers may agonize over what to order, but for chefs, it’s the menu itself that feels like a decision-making minefield: not just what goes on the menu, but HOW it goes on the menu. KTCHNrebel’s been hearing a lot about the importance of menu design as a restaurant’s “calling card” to attract hungry diners. It doesn’t matter whether you’re running a Michelin-starred mecca or a burger joint – the language you use on your menu reflects your restaurant philosophy in the most literal sense of the word.

So what’s the best way of formulating your menu ideas nowadays? How can you send your customers’ imaginations soaring to new culinary heights before they’ve even finished making their online reservations? Careful, though – if the menu description doesn’t fit what ends up arriving on the plate, it’s a sure-fire recipe for disappointment.

KTCHNrebel sat down with Sascha Barby, Senior Director Global Culinary Experts at RATIONAL AG, to discuss all things menu-related. Besides knowing his way around the management perspective, Barby also once ran a restaurant himself, where he had to make pressing decisions about whether “Masque de Porc roulé” would sell well as an appetizer. (Yes, that translates as “rolled mask of pork.” And yes, that does mean rolls of skin from a pig’s head. And yes, they were actually a huge hit.)

Minimalism – pure food

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to menu design, content, and language. Fine dining, casual dining, chain restaurants, fast food, every restaurant has to tackle the same questions: What’s the ideal number of dishes to put on the menu? What would be too many options, or not enough? What information do guests want, and what information does the chef want to give them? What tone should the menu have? With all the information menus are responsible for providing, restaurant teams need to anticipate their customers’ expectations and reactions. Menus are like a concentrated blast of potential: they have the power to get you excited about ordering, or they can turn you off so hard that you bolt out of the restaurant and never look back.

According to Sascha Barby, today’s customers generally want to be left in peace. As far as menus go, that means minimalism is all the rage. If people want to read at lunch, they’ll bring a book. (Or a phone.) Ordering food needs to be an efficient process without a lot of unnecessary froufrou.

“Less is more”

When Canadian chef Michael Robbins opened his Vancouver restaurant, AnnaLena, in 2015, he went the extra mile on every detail: He scouted the location, came up with the logo and the name, and (of course) developed and tested his own unique concept. And once he had that concept in place, he needed to describe it to his customers as convincingly as possible – no matter how gorgeous your menu looks, remember it needs to do one thing above all, and that’s sell food.

Menu of Restaurant Zero Waste Dishes

Menu of Restaurant AnnaLena /

Robbins’ strategy at his new location was (and remains) “Less is more”. Rather than hiding behind flowery descriptions, he tells people exactly what to expect on the plate. No more, no less. This current version basically reads like a list of the main ingredients in each dish:

Chicken – buttermilk fried, lemongrass aioli, chili lime, nam jim pickles

This purist approach makes it easy for customers – the ingredients speak for themselves. Just skim the options one by one: yum, yuck, no thanks, sounds good, okay, I’ll take that one. The minimalist menu approach also leaves room for that crucial “surprise” moment: How are the individual ingredients prepared? How will they be combined?

Sascha Barby sees the AnnaLena as a great model to follow. Today’s customers want clear information: what are the main components of this dish, how is it made, and what comes with it? “The more reduced, even simplistic the information is, the better,” he says. “If people want to know more, they can ask their servers. In fact, that’s even better. The person taking the order ought to know the dish well – and have tasted it, ideally – so he or she can talk to customers about it. That builds trust and creates a connection to the customer.”

Even high-end French gastronomy has picked up on the trend. The menu at Ganymed in Berlin offers choices like “Octopus salad, lemon fennel, black sesame cream” or “Pasta with sauteed prawns in Ricard tomato sauce”. And at Le Faubourg, they cut to the chase even more quickly: “BEEF – brisket, carrot, portobello, red wine, bacon“ and “BEEF sirloin & heart, celery, bean, smoke“. Yes, even here, people don’t have to dig out Google Translate to read the menu at a French restaurant. They’re there for great food, not enigmas wrapped in mysteries.

Of course, nobody’s saying your modern menu can’t highlight special qualities or ingredients. “Hand-fished Breton turbot” isn’t something you find just everywhere. Customers need to know things like that, because special ingredients communicate the chef’s higher standards, and justify a higher price than the stuff you can find at any seafood counter.

Also okay: using a particular tone that fits the rest of the concept. Many start-ups make the menu part of the “gastrotainment” experience – chefs talk about their ideas, their food philosophies, their favorite music, etc etc etc.

Organic, vegan, regional: Menus and the environment

No matter how fine or casual your restaurant is (or how avant-garde or gastro-pub or pizza-and-burgers or anything else), if you’re using local or regional ingredients, you’re ALWAYS allowed to make special mention of them – and be proud of it. Cheese from a farm up the road? Go for it. Veggies grown in your own garden? Absolutely.

Modern customers are interested in where their meals come from – whether they’re at the grocery store or in a restaurant. Just a few years ago, European customers thought of American or Argentinian beef as “the good stuff”, but now environmental consciousness is having a major impact on the meat industry. People want to enjoy the occasional steak without leaving a bigger carbon footprint. Renowned food expert Hanni Rützler sums the trend up like this: “We’re defining ourselves more and more in terms of what we eat – and especially in terms of what we don’t eat.”

Restaurant Menu Dish

Sascha Barby, Senior Director Global Culinary Experts

As a result, sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in our diets. It’s not exactly out of the blue, either: 31 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases are related to food in some way. That’s more than transportation and housing combined. (Source: Erfolg mit V. Janina Kleine, Albert Schweitzer Foundation). A lot of restaurants are responding to customers’ interest in sustainable snacks by offering vegetarian and vegan options. Gone are the days where plant-based fare is relegated to a separate menu – even flexitarians often go for more environmentally friendly alternatives. Climate-conscious diners like seeing references to Eaternity or the KlimaTeller app. The latter was created by the German Ministry of Environment in February of 2019 as a way for restaurateurs to check the carbon footprint of their menu options and earn certification.

Will this trend catch on? Will more and more menus start including KlimaTeller ratings? They just might, if enough chefs keep their ears open and listen to the market…

Menu design tips

A summary of Sascha Barby’s most important tips for creating a great menu:

  1. Find your individual voice – something that fits your concept and your audience. Who’s your target group? Think of them when you’re designing your menu. Customers at a burger place want simple, modern language – friendly, down-to-earth descriptions of well-known dishes. At Michelin-starred places, they expect the menu (like everything else) to have that little extra something.
  2. Less is more. That’s true for the number of menu options, and it’s true for the information in the actual menu. People need to know what ingredients they’re getting, plus any extra tidbits about where those ingredients are from, and then the price.
  3. Make sure the layout is clear and easy to follow, and keep things consistent – having flowery descriptions in one section and bullet points in another will only create unnecessary confusion.
  4. Less is more when it comes to length, too: seeing 25 main dishes doesn’t exactly give people the impression that they’re getting freshly made, high-quality food.
  5. Last but not least: Use your menu to show who you are and how great you are. (Try to avoid actually TELLING them how great you are, though.)


Hey! Watch your language!

Barby offers a few “Don’ts” as well. Here’s a few of the most important:

  1. Avoid long, vague descriptions. Don’t pile on adjectives, especially adjectives that mean the same things.
  2. Danger, trendy phrases ahead: calling mushroom soup “mushroom cappuccino” is so over, you’ll have people falling asleep reading the appetizers.
  3. Rating your own food raises suspicion, so don’t throw in a bunch of hard-sell adjectives like tasty, delicious, or (even worse) exceptional – people prefer to judge such things for themselves.
  4. Don’t use foreign-language descriptions that only a few people are going to understand.
  5. Taking a casual tone is great if your menu is designed with that kind of atmosphere in mind, but there’s “fun” and then there’s “trying too hard.” Don’t go overboard with witty references or cute made-up words to the point that people aren’t even sure what they’re ordering anymore. In other words, save the real creativity for the kitchen.

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