Restaurant menu design: 8 ways to upgrade your menu

Your restaurant menu is a greeting card, resume and proof of concept all rolled into one. That may seem like a lot of pressure, but it’s actually an extremely effective tool in your restaurant toolkit to attract and keep customers.-

Skeptical? Studies show that a strong menu design can boost profits by as much as 15%.

Even if you have a hostess, your menu is the first chance many diners have to see what you’re all about. The ingredients you use, the dishes you offer and the colors and fonts you choose affect everything from the vibe of your restaurant to how much money a customer will ultimately spend.

8 tips to improve your restaurant menu design

If graphic design isn’t your passion, you may not know where to start when optimizing your restaurant menu. No worries — we’ve got you covered!

Here are our eight top tips to help you upgrade your restaurant’s menu design and attract more orders:

1. Analyze your menu items and their performance

The first step toward a more profitable menu is to figure out what needs to stay and what needs to go. 

As a restaurant owner or operator, it’s easy to get attached to certain menu items, especially those your back-of-house team loves to prepare or items you yourself love to eat. But this analysis needs to be objective — no personal feelings involved.

  • Remove anything that is out of date, incompatible with the current direction of your menu and/or doesn’t appeal to your target demographic. These items aren’t doing you any favors.
  • Look through online reviews and other forms of customer feedback to remove items that are typically rated low or can’t be made consistently.
  • If you’re doing more takeout and delivery business, limit the number of dishes that can’t be packaged for takeout while maintaining quality (i.e., crème brûlée, yogurt parfaits, cheese souffle, etc.). 79% of consumers surveyed agree they will reorder delivery and takeout from a restaurant if the experience is consistently good.
  • Eliminate options that aren’t popular or cost too much money to prepare. Find out the profit margin of each dish by calculating your cost of goods sold and ditch the items that aren’t generating revenue. If a food item is dragging profits down, simply eliminate it or pivot to a new, improved item.

2. Place items strategically on your menu to avoid clutter

As important as it is to evaluate what you’re putting on your menu, you also need to think about where you’re putting those items. 

Menu design is part science and part art form. The average diner doesn’t spend a large portion of time scanning their menu before making a decision. Often, it’s a cursory look based on their first impression.

The results? You only have a brief window to direct their attention exactly where you want it to go. Here are some tried and true tricks to make a lasting impression:

  • Use design tricks (called “eye magnets”) to subconsciously encourage patrons to choose high-priority items. These tools include borders, shaded or colored boxes, asterisks, photos or illustrations, and bold or specialty fonts.
  • Take advantage of white space in your layout. Leaving space for readers to relax their eyes is important so you don’t overwhelm them with options. It also increases the likelihood that customers will order more items. Pro tip: Use menu maker tools that have optimized templates for you to use for on-premise dining menus.
  • Highlight great dishes. The top and upper right-hand portion of the food menu is prime real estate. Reserve it for your best performing and most profitable items.

3. Divide the menu into concise, logical sections

If you list every item in a row, it’s going to overwhelm the diner. Similarly, if your menu is broken up into a broad range of sections, it’ll be hard for any customer to narrow down exactly what they want — and what you recommend they choose.

Our top recommendations?

  • Keep it simple. You want diners to know what’s an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. You can also divide it by proteins (i.e., fish, beef, chicken, etc). However, don’t make the mistake of outlining every subheading within each section.
  • Understand your audience. Do you live in an area with a high population of vegetarians? Make a section with your vegetarian-friendly dishes.
  • Don’t over-explain. An appetizer is an appetizer. It may be tempting to let your inner-writer take control and create a unique section title, but ensure the copy is self-explanatory. You want to entice your diners, not confuse them.

4. Use mouthwatering words to amp up your menu descriptions

Which sounds better: a burger and fries or a char-grilled Angus beef burger with aged cheddar and hand-cut Idaho fries?

Your menu descriptions should be concise but descriptive. If that sounds contradictory, just think of maximizing your space. Make every word matter. Longer isn’t necessarily better, but if an adjective or specific name of a product will help sell a menu item, then there’s likely value in including it in your description.

For starters, emphasize “yummy words” that are likely to get customers’ stomachs rumbling. Salads are crispy and fresh, barbecue is sticky-sweet and smoky and desserts are perfectly flaky with a sinful chocolate drizzle. 

Consider your demographic, too; if you’re catering to an audience that appreciates locally sourced produce or sustainability, work in those related buzzwords. (Reminder: always be honest about your product. If it’s not locally sourced, don’t claim it is.)

Here are some examples of descriptions that sell:

  • Tangy St. Lawrence goat cheese with locally farmed beets and a zesty citrus vinaigrette
  • Pillowy gnocchi in a truffle cream sauce, dusted with aged Parmesan
  • Grandma’s Sunday meatballs on a freshly baked roll

5. Follow the best practices of menu psychology

Most menu researchers agree that there’s an art to engineering a menu that drives sales. Diners have a habit of scanning a menu in a particular pattern, starting with the upper right-hand corner. Use this to your advantage.

This is why you’ll often find steakhouses displaying their pricey seafood platters here and even diners make use of the “sweet spot” by offering beef short rib benedicts or smoked salmon omelets. If you outline that high-profit item or category with a bold border and use an ornate font you’re even more likely to grab guests’ attention.

Other handy psychological tricks for restaurant menus include:

  • Avoid choice overload. Limit menu options to seven items or less per category. Sometimes more is just more, and guests may get overwhelmed and decide to order less (or nothing at all) because they can’t make up their minds.
  • Start with the most expensive item. Leading with an expensive item makes every dish that follows seem more reasonably priced.
  • Use color psychology. Rely on the scientific power of certain colors to guide guests’ emotions. For instance, red is a stimulating color linked to increased appetite and yellow begs for attention — this combination is favored by one of the most successful restaurant franchises on the planet.

6. Rethink the way you determine and write your pricing (hint: no more dollar signs!)

Restaurants of all types and sizes are dropping the dollar sign from their menus, and it’s not just because it looks nice. 

Diners who look at menu items priced using dollar signs are more likely to make a strong financial association with that item. As a result, they choose cheaper options. 

Instead, keep pricing simple, using just a numerical value with blank space between the menu description and the price.


  • Crispy-skin Jidori chicken, herbed spaetzle, sunchoke puree    

It’s also crucial to be strategic and deliberate about your pricing. The cost of a dish should reflect the ideal food cost percentage of 25-30% (fine dining restaurants typically sit slightly higher at 35%). If a cheeseburger costs you $4 to make, it should cost customers roughly $13 to $16.

If you need to lower your food costs to keep menu prices within reach of your target demographic, try working with your distributors, using seasonal menu ingredients and/or tweaking portion sizes.

7. Avoid using PDF menus on your restaurant’s website

Here’s some food for thought:

  • About 63% of all Google searches originate from a mobile device
  • 90% of consumers say they’ll look up a restaurant online before dining
  • 52% of consumers say that a poor mobile experience will make them less inclined to interact with a company

Using a PDF to display your restaurant’s menu automatically violates best practices of mobile optimization because it forces people to download a file that doesn’t read well on a tiny screen. In other words, it makes it difficult for all those smartphone and tablet users to easily access your menu and place an order.

Instead, consider offering an online menu, like Grubhub Direct, that’s interactive and designed specifically for mobile users. That way customers don’t have to work to find what they want, and they can order directly from you.

8. Include menu photos

The right picture can transform a mystery dish into a new favorite and make comfort food exciting again. That’s why restaurants that use photos in their menus get 70% more online orders and 65% more delivery and takeout sales.

Food photographers know just how to capture dishes so that they look utterly crave-worthy. You don’t want to overdo the visuals, though, so pick and choose your moments. 

Save the pictures for items you really want to push or those that might need the extra explanation. Meanwhile, you can use extra photos to attract customers through social media.

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