According to cook, chef, and noted food writer Sara Dickerman, Menus are "the Pavlov's bell of eating out". In an article for Slate she writes, "Menu language, with its hyphens, quotation marks, and random outbursts of foreign words, serves less to describe food than to manage your expectations." Sage advice from someone who has spent a good deal of her life immersed in all aspects of food preparation and dining, and has received the prestigious James Beard award for writing about food.
In a nutshell, Menu English can manipulate and has the power to sell - to convince or sway a diner to opt for one dish over another. But how does it work and what makes it so persuasive?
While we can't provide the definitive answer, we can offer some helpful tips and strategies to get you started in the right direction. Ultimately, much of what your restaurant is all about will determine what type of copy you should write. So take these tips with a grain of salt - a fresh, grain of sea-salt.
1. If you're not Shakespeare, then don't be. Good menu copy doesn't have to be poetic or dramatic - more often than not, the simpler the better. It doesn't even have to follow the rules of grammar. So don't be intimidated into thinking you need to be a professional writer. No one knows your food better than you do. Honesty is the best policy. You'll be fine if you honestly, and most often plainly, describe what's on your menu. Erring on the side of simplicity will do you right.
2. Consider Traffic Jamming. If you are writing menu copy in the U.S., you should consider a technique coined by expert food writer Sara Dickerman called "Traffic Jamming." Summed up, it means spelling out almost every ingredient in the dish, pandering to the finicky and obsessive culture of American diners who desire to micromanage their meal by scrutinizing the ingredients. Kind of like the Starbucks of menu writing. As an added benefit, it convinces diners they are unlikely to replicate the dish at home, thereby justifying a higher price. Consider this offering from Proof Restaurant in DC: "Roasted Scottish Salmon - caramelized cauliflower, filet beans, mushrooms, potatoes, fennel cream." Not many folks are going to caramelize their cauliflower at home or whip up a quick fennel cream. Of course, this technique is more suited to upscale dining. If the dishes you serve are simpler, stick to the basics. The honest, minimalist approach is equally effective.
3. Don't scare the anxious diner. Kind of like the everyman's version of "traffic-jamming", chain restaurants employ this strategy often. It boils down to having any type of menu item name, even a funny or cute non-descriptive ones like "Sally's Bitchin' Burger", but making the menu item description as specific as possible often down the exact size of the portion. Also important here, the description should be void of any hard-to-pronounce, intimidating foreign phrases that might dissuade the customer from ordering the dish out of fear of embarrassment. An added benefit of this technique - it reassures the worried diner there won't be any surprises or strange exotic herbs they can't stomach. The "perfectly grilled" 1/2 pound double-cheeseburger will have exactly "two slices of American Cheese on top, catsup, yellow mustard, no lettuce, with 3 pickles on the side".
4. Be a Fresh Face. It should be assumed that in good restaurant everything is fresh. So why would so many recent menus display this and chefs feel the need to point this out by including the words "fresh", "market", "seasonal", "gourmet", and other synonyms throughout their menu copy? Because in America, it works. Trends in advertising come and go, but presently we're riding a wave of organic goodness all the way to the bank. So it probably wouldn't hurt to include at least a few of these words and phrases in your menu item descriptions. Too much of a "fresh" thing though and you'll lose your patrons trust. So don't overdo it.
5. The Honest, Modernist, Minimalist. Most diners realize that menus are selling tools, so to persuade them otherwise, especially in these time of marketing through anti-marketing, try listing your dishes for what they are with no hyperbolic descriptive copy. This strategy caters to the jaded crowd but also appeals to younger diners who have grown up through the age of over-the-top marketing. It also makes sense if your having trouble pulling off the other strategies. Taking this to the extreme, if you have chops to match you could mirror Komi Restaurant in Washington DC, where they have the ultimate in minimalistic menu copy - there are no printed menus!
6. Proofread and spell-check. Every writer is guilty of typos now and then. But a menu littered with misspellings may signal to your patrons that you probably also lack an attention to the details of your foods. If you want to demonstrate culinary flair in your descriptions, with exotic terms or foreign phrases, (80 percent of which are usually French by the way) then go for it. But just make sure they are spelled correctly. (If you are using menu software such as MenuPro, you can utilize the built-in culinary spell-checker or any of 10 foreign language dictionaries that come with the software.)
7. I'm CAPS and you're not. Being consistent with your use of upper case letters, whether starting menu item names with capitals, or capitalizing the whole name, or even the whole menu item description, not only effects your menu copy but also plays a role in your menu design. Caps are louder, bolder. All lower case and you're announcing with understated confidence what fine delicacies await the hopeful diner. Whatever method you use, stay consistent. Don't capitalize one menu item's name, and then not another. Also, concerning the use of punctuation and specifically the period - if you end a food item's description with a period, then end all food item descriptions with periods.
In the end, write what feels natural, re-write until you're satisfied, and get opinions - even from your guests - as to whether your menu copy sounds appetizing and appealing, and accurately describes your fare or even needs a re-write. But don't ignore this important aspect of your menu design, as it can have a significant effect on your bottom line. Good luck and bon appétit!