Menus by the Book

What's in a menu? Usually the success of a restaurant.

The primary purpose of a menu is to inform us what a restaurant has to offer and how much they charge. It may seem simple, but composing this list is one of the most difficult and important tasks of a restaurateur, as a menu also must reflect the seasonal availability of ingredients, achieve a proper balance of tastes and textures among the available products, accurately project the qualities upon which the chef or restaurant's reputation or focus is set, and satisfy the numerous requirements of the customer. Or at least it should.

A century ago really only one golden rule applied: No dish should be included on a menu unless the chef is absolutely confident of its worthiness. This still holds true of course, but modern-day menu analysts maintain that composition is as consequential as content. In fact a number of tried-and-true rules regarding size, style, linguistics, and even subliminal layout of menus have been compiled and codified over the years, some obvious and common-sensical, others involving more than meets the eye, and still others concerned with literally what meets the eye.

A look at our local restaurants indicates that most of them, and almost all the finer ones, adhere very closely to the book on menu writing. Still, where there are rules, there are always exceptions.

Jeremy Eaton
Jeremy Eaton

Location Info

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China Grill

404 Washington Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Music Venues

Region: South Beach

Blue Door at Delano

1685 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: South Beach

Norman's

21 Almeria Ave.
Coral Gables, FL 33134

Category: Restaurant > Contemporary

Region: Coral Gables/South Miami

Ortanique on the Mile

278 Miracle Mile
Coral Gables, FL 33134

Category: Restaurant > Caribbean

Region: South Dade

Morton's The Steakhouse

1200 Brickell Ave.
Miami, FL 33131

Category: Restaurant > Steakhouse

Region: Brickell

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Basic design precepts include no-brainers such as name and/or logo should always appear, avoid excessive color and fancy typefaces (never write an entire menu in script), and don't clutter. Mango's Tropical Café hands out the most frenzied, multihued menu on the Beach, and the News Cafés' pages are busy with restaurant and gift-store info, a photo with caption about live jazz, and multiple boxed and shaded items, but otherwise our local eateries do well on this score. Most also avoid menus that are unusually shaped or difficult to handle, though Shula's Steak House passes out a football with the menu written on it. Actually this works because it's easy to handle (unless you're a member of the San Diego Chargers) and cohesively tied to the restaurants' sports theme. China Grill's circular menu is less radical but still faces the problem inherent to using novel shapes: They're expensive to replace (you'd be surprised how much more a printer will charge for working within a circle). From the diners' vantage point, such menus can be fun. Or dangerous, like at the now-retired Colony Restaurant, which used to hand out heavy, sharply pointed metallic menus that, in less than graceful hands, could poke someone's eye out. Nemo uses equally weighty copper-backed menus, but the edges are smoothed, and they're narrow enough to manipulate easily. By the way the maximum span of an opened menu should never exceed 18 inches(height) by 24 inches(width), the rationale being that one should be able to lean it over a place setting, which generally is 15 by 24 inches.

Rules regarding linguistics also are straightforward, as in don't be cute with menu names. For one thing it provides ammo to reviewers. When Meza Fine Art gallerycafé offered up a teeny piece of corvina and called it “Old Man and the Sea,” who could resist writing that, “the old man should have thrown this one back”? More important though, such names should be avoided because most of us are adults and don't need to have our clam chowder called “Captain Crusty's” in order to enjoy it. We do need to be able to read the menu, so don't use a foreign language without translation. Our ethnic restaurants do well on this count, though the intro to Don Quixote's menu is written solely in Spanish. It also breaks another rule: Don't inundate the customers with information at the front of the menu, as it delays them from ordering (limited info on the back cover is okay). Be consistent in foreign language usage as well, not like L'Entrecote de Paris, whose headings go from Main Entrées to Side Orders/Appetizers to Nos Salades.

Atlantic Restaurant in the Beach House Bal Harbour is the worst transgressor of the don't overpromise maxim, handing out by far the most boastful menu in town. “Mom couldn't make it better!” is how they describe their roasted chicken; lobster potpie is “the best thing”; shrimp cocktail “smashing”; and gazpacho “glitzy,” whatever that means. Even mustard sauce is labeled “incredible.” Such promises are especially problematic if, as in this case, they aren't fully realized, but at least they don't break any truth-in-menu laws, of which there are hundreds. The ones most often violated: Sanka must be Sanka; Jell-O, with a capital J, must be Jell-O brand; maple syrup can't be maple flavored; Long Island duck, Dover sole, Maine lobster, even Idaho potatoes have to come from their namesake locations; “flown in daily” must be substantiated by invoices; “fresh” can't be fresh-frozen; a bowl of soup must contain more than a cup (some local places use shallow bowls that hold exactly eight ounces); and charcoal-broiled has to involve charcoal. Oh, and add-on gratuities must be mentioned up-front (got that, Toni?).

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