How to write a best-selling menu
Special tomatoes. Prosciutto imported from Italy, cured in the same caves for 300 years. Mushrooms from a farm 15 miles away. Organic, non-GMO cheese from a producer who pays all his employees a fair wage.
Wait! Stop! It’s at this point that restaurant guests go into overload and just settle for a pepperoni pizza.
Writing a menu these days is a juggling act, as diners demand information — but too much and they turn off.
“Italian food should be simple with the best quality ingredients. If you get too wordy and use culinary terms, people get intimidated,” says Louie Bossi, executive chef and owner of Louie Bossi’s Ristorante, Bar and Pizzeria in Ft. Lauderdale and Boca Raton, Florida. Bossi feels it’s important to call out the more essential items like San Marzano tomatoes and that his olives and mozzarella are imported. Beyond that, he prefers his servers provide additional information — and only if guests ask.
Jay Silver, owner of fast-casual Stone Bridge Pizza & Salad in New York City, focuses on what’s important at the moment. By that he means organic food, all-natural products and locally sourced ingredients.
“We want to educate customers and let them know what our mission is,” he says. Highlighting the quality ingredients also explains why his prices are high.
Simone Falco is the owner of Rossopomodoro, also in New York City, and keeps his menu descriptions minimal.
“I don’t want to lose people on the menu; it has to be easy. I’ve learned that certain words resonate, like ‘wild,’ ‘organic,’ ‘grass fed,’ and ‘local.’”
What’s highly important for Bossi is listing menu items in Italian first, then adding an English description “so you’re getting that real authentic feel,” he explains. “I want people to come to my restaurant and experience what they’d have in Italy.”
As for Silver, listing all ingredients in a dish in order of importance is essential, so it sounds interesting. “And I use adjectives to make dishes sound sexier,” he says. “If it reads well people tend to buy it.” An example is: fire-roasted tomato basil soup, or the use of words like “drizzled,” “crunchy” or “spiced.”
Arlene Spiegel, a restaurant consultant in New York City, believes restaurants should highlight ingredients that have a halo effect, such as local products, or if they require special preparation. This, she says, “will elevate the menu item as well as highlight the food philosophy of the chef.”
Then there are the names of what you have on your menu, especially your pizzas. Falco steers clear of humor and instead prefers simply using Italian names. Bossi does the same, and thinks the names just sound more fun in their native Italian.
Jay Silver used to have a Kramer Pizza on his menu, in reference to an early Seinfeld episode, “but not everybody got the joke, especially younger customers,” he says, so he changed it to The Salad Pizza. If you are going to use humor in your names, don’t overdo it, he cautions, and just be clever in one or two pizzas.
As for the menu itself, opinions vary. Bossi laminates his for durability, while Silver, whose restaurant is fast-casual, has rustic-looking menu boards, featuring chalkboard font. These are inexpensive, he says, and changing a board out costs around $75. Changes happen about twice a year. “It’s a lot less expensive than printed menus,” Silver explains. For his printed take-out menus, he waits to make any changes, such as prices, until he’s ordering a new batch.
Silver is not a fan of dollar signs on his menus, though he always lists prices. “It’s just a look,” he says. “I don’t want to see a million dollar signs.” He also likes prices that are just shy of a full number, such as $8.95. “People see that and think $8, not $9,” he explains. Falco also steers clear of dollar signs. “It flows well with what we’re trying to do — keep things a little more simple.” He also tends to list pizzas starting with the cheapest, “to make it easy to follow.”
Falco deliberately uses paper for the menus at Rossopomodoro. “I like the organic feel of the paper to connect to what we serve.” His menu is six pages, with the restaurant name on the front, and the back left blank, tied together with simple twine. One page lists wines by the glass, but a full wine list is available as well; Falco of Rossopomodoro gives it upon request “because I don’t like to have too many pieces of paper on the table and because most people have just a glass.” The menu is reprinted every couple of weeks, on standard paper, which is done in house and inexpensive.
He also changes 25 to 30 percent of the menu about four times a year, “which we need to do as a neighborhood restaurant. It gives us a story to tell customers — why we have changed it up. That keeps customers excited and chefs stimulated and allows us to serve seasonal food.”
The menu is one of the most important elements in a restaurant,” says Spiegel. “It is the only item every guest touches and reads. The style, font, descriptions, and number of offerings should engage the guest into your culinary philosophy and your overall brand.”
The Dietary Dilemma
Allergies and food preferences are no longer isolated events, and restaurants have to cater to them. At Rossopomodoro in New York, dairy-free and gluten-free dishes are called out with “df” or “gf” next to them, with an explanation at the bottom of the page.
Louie Bossi, owner of Louie Bossi’s Ristorante, Bar and Pizzeria in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, relies on servers to point these things out. But he does not mention vegetarian items, “because vegetarians know what they can eat.”
At Stone Bridge Pizza & Salad in New York City, owner Jay Silver has a menu board offering additional items. Along with items such as extra cheese, it mentions the upcharge for gluten-free crusts and items like vegan cheese.
“If a restaurant offers gluten-free and vegan items, it may be noted with an asterisk at the bottom of the menu, i.e. ‘Ask your server about our gluten-free and vegan options,’” says NYC restaurant consultant Arlene Spiegel. “It is not necessary to identify by symbols or words every item that has a dietary claim, unless there is a huge demand.”
Amanda Baltazar is a Washington-based freelancer who covers restaurants, food, beverages and retail.