If it’s time to open your restaurant, you’ll want to make sure you have a menu that showcases you at your best—with both delicious options and a reasonable price point. It’s imperative when you’re looking at how to make a restaurant menu that you take a 360-degree view of your restaurant, such as determining where you source your raw ingredients from and how available they are, as well as making sure your customers can easily understand your offerings.
We’ll go through how to make a restaurant menu, touching on each of these points and more. You should be able to come away with an understanding of the best approach for your specific restaurant, which will enable you to create the best menu possible.
Before you go forward, a major part of how to make a restaurant menu comes down to what your restaurant is actually capable of. That’s not to mean that you don’t have a talented chef or staff at the helm; rather, it’s more about the equipment in your kitchen, the raw components you can get a hold of, whether you use seasonal or locally sourced ingredients, and more.
Think deeper to understand what you have access to. That might be a question of your suppliers and what they offer, but also the literal space in your kitchen. You’ll also want to keep in mind ingredient cost and how you can use the same ingredients for multiple menu items to reduce waste.
The most important part of creating a restaurant menu? Picking your menu items, of course. Making a restaurant menu isn’t simply about including only the dishes you like most or are best at—you want to make sure you’re catering to your customers’ specific tastes as well as the time at which they’re dining with you.
What kind of preferences do your diners have, and what are they expecting from your restaurant? A crucial part of how to make a restaurant menu successful is offering dishes that reflect the tastes of your customers. That means deciding how high-end or accessible your food will be but also reflecting things such as dietary restrictions or preferences (gluten-free, vegan, meatless Fridays).
In order to create a restaurant menu with your clientele in mind, though, you’ll first need to determine who your target audience is. Completing a market analysis is a good place to start, so you can determine if there is demand for your type of cuisine or if the market is already saturated. Looking at your competition will also help you determine how to make your menu differ from theirs.
Making your restaurant menu will naturally include pricing your dishes accurately. You want to make sure you’re picking prices that are: competitive, cover your costs, and reflect the experience you want your diners to have.
Knowing your target audience will help you determine the price range they’re most likely to respond to, which will help you plan your menu accordingly. For a more in-depth look at how to price a restaurant menu, check out our guide.
If your restaurant could be a destination for specific holidays and milestones, consider putting together a supplemental restaurant menu that’s specific to these occasions.
For instance, if couples will dine with you during Valentine’s Day, you might want to create a prix-fixe menu to entice them and also help you manage the volume of the evening. Similarly, you might want to have a specifically seasonal menu or a brunch menu. It could also make the experience in your restaurant feel more special since diners can look forward to a fresh experience.
As tempted as you might be to offer customers an endless list of choice, a strong restaurant menu won’t overwhelm customers—or your kitchen staff. A menu with too many offerings may increase the time that it takes for your customers to order, making it less efficient to turn over tables. It also might send your kitchen staff scrambling for different recipes and ingredients, which could weaken the dishes instead, rather than giving them the ability to master a handful of signature dishes.
You also want to think about spoilage and food waste: the chance that fresh ingredients don’t get used due to no one ordering a dish is higher when your menu options are too broad. If you want to offer choice, consider offering a core group of dishes with some customization options.
Beyond the contents of your menu is how you present them. It’s crucial to make a restaurant menu that communicates your offerings clearly, shows your dishes in the best light, and makes their experience a positive one.
To create a truly customer-friendly menu, you have to make sure your diners can easily read and understand it.
One of the biggest faults of restaurateurs learning how to make a restaurant menu? Getting a little too fancy with the typeface. Although the right typeface can strengthen a business’s branding, the wrong one makes ordering difficult for your customers. That makes for an experience no one wants to repeat.
Consider streamlining your choices of fonts between a serif font or a sans serif font. And stick to just a single font to keep your menu clear and easily digestible.
Lastly, make sure that the font that you choose corresponds with the ambiance and experience of your restaurant as you compose the visuals of your menu.
Another consideration is font spacing called leading and kerning. The spacing of your words may seem a little nitpicky, but think about it: A word with letters squished too close together or stacked on another word too closely can make a menu hard—if not impossible—to read. Misread menus can lead to some unhappy customers—and kitchen staff.
Changing the spacing of your letters in a word as well as how far you stack words can actually create different experiences. More negative space tends to look slightly more high end, whereas closer spacing can read more like a diner menu and encourage a more casual environment.
You might be surprised, but there’s quite a bit of psychology involved in making the best menu possible.
Where you place the dishes on a restaurant menu matters. For instance, some studies have shown that customers are more likely to select a dish that’s in one of the top corners of a menu card—specifically, the top-right corner. You might want to consider putting one of your most expensive or high-margin dishes in that location.
Additionally, diners who are price-conscious often find the most expensive dish on a menu and then order the dish below it, since it seems like a good deal. Think through these strategies as you choose how to organize your menu.
Once you’ve decided on pricing, think about how you want to display your prices. First, consider rounding your prices to whole numbers—$14.99 should be $15—which is easier for diners to read and generally more attractive.
Additionally, think hard as to whether your prices need to begin with dollar signs, or if it looks right with your menu design to exclude them. Dollar signs can psychologically put cost at the forefront of selection and drive consumers to lower-priced dishes. Menus without dollar signs can also look more high end, if that’s what you’re going for.
You can’t go wrong with black or white for the text on your menu, but you might also want to think about the colors around it.
Consumers react to different colors differently: For instance, red and yellow are energizing, and are said to get people to eat faster (for example, McDonald’s); whereas darker, moodier colors like blue and purple are said to calm them. You’ll want to decide on the colors that reflect both the atmosphere in your restaurant as well as what you want diners to feel as they open your menu.
If there’s a specific item or deal you want to highlight—say a combo or lunch special—you might want to offset it in a box. This will draw diners’ eyes to it and help drive decision-making.
Additionally, you might want to reconsider formatting your menu such that your prices are in one tight column. This can encourage diners to easily scan the column and find the cheapest menu items.
Whether you put your menu in a little book as a bifold or give diners a single sheet can determine a lot about the ambience of your restaurant. The one you choose will depend on the experience you want them to have—as well as how extensive your menu is—but test out the feeling of both so you know which fits your restaurant best.
As you’re making this decision, keep in mind that customers are much less likely to look at the backside of a single-page menu, and that customers focus on the right side of a bifold.
The descriptions of your dishes say a lot about the atmosphere of your restaurant. For instance, let’s think about describing a Caesar salad two ways:
Local romaine, shaved pecorino romano, house-baked croutons
Romaine lettuce with croutons and shredded cheese
It almost goes without saying that one dining experience is very different from the other. As you’re writing your descriptions, think about how you want your customers to feel as they order and dine—do you worry that they’ll think your dishes are fussy, or would you prefer them to feel like they’re eating something more upscale?
Also think about the language you use to describe elements, i.e. “local” or “house-made” and whether it’s something important for your customer to know. And even if you are going for a higher-end feel, make sure your customers get enough from your descriptions to know what’s in your dish.
You might be surprised that there are so many elements involved in how to make your own menu for a restaurant. If you put in the time to really think through each component, you’ll really be able to design a menu that’s exactly what a diner wants to see and motivates them to spend in a certain way. At the end of the day, you want to make sure you cater to your customer and keep them coming back for more.
Sally Lauckner is the editor-in-chief of the Fundera Ledger and the editorial director at Fundera.
Sally has over a decade of experience in print and online journalism. Previously she was the senior editor at SmartAsset—a Y Combinator-backed fintech startup that provides personal finance advice. There she edited articles and data reports on topics including taxes, mortgages, banking, credit cards, investing, insurance, and retirement planning. She has also held various editorial roles at AOL.com, Huffington Post, and Glamour magazine. Her work has also appeared in Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan magazines.