“I don’t want to hear the specials. If they’re so special, put ‘em on the menu” – Jerry Seinfeld
From food-court stall to a BBQ catering – the menu design is often falsely considered as a simple means of getting to your food. First impressions, décor and ambiance are surely important – but you only get to the soul of it when you sit down with the menu. It’s only when your eyes dart across the page that questions coalesce in your mind.
Should I go for a set menu, or wait and see whether I’ll want dessert? Why do they have so ludicrously many options? That can’t be a good sign. Who knew going out to dinner in Singapore could be so complicated? Shouldn’t I rather get a private chef? Okay, their menu is in comic sans, is it too late to leave?
The menu design is more than a formality, it guides the way you will eat and make your choices – often unknowingly. Just like literature, menus too have hidden messages and meanings.
The menu design goes further than the usual marketing tricks we all know about, such as placing the most expensive option next to the slightly cheaper one. The most important aspect of the menu design is language, as it can heighten anticipation, arouse curiosity and instil desire. The menu design is more than a formality, it guides the way you will eat and make your choices – often unknowingly. There is an art to it, and that art is poetry.
Start reading the menu design differently – the Romantic, Modernist, and Postmodern way. – It will help you read menus as poetry. After all, in Singapore food is an art, so the menus should be too!
Food & Romanticism
The key to reading the menu design, like poetry, is the relationship between form and content. Let’s get the obvious point out of the way first. Pictures of the food on offer: acceptable in a fast food place but almost nowhere else. They say a picture is worth 1000 words, and what’s the last time you read a 1000-word poem? Exactly. To put it brutally: if you’re angling for a Michelin Star, putting a picture of your food on your menu is akin to firing your whole staff on the night the judges show up. It is an artless thing to do as its content is not true to the form of a menu.
As far as evoking food goes, many restaurants with classy aspirations opt for what we will call the Romantic style of menu design. (This is particularly true of purveyors of French and Italian cuisine). This type of menu is characterised by an elaborate, cursive typeset, and descriptions as overflowing and rich as the food on offer – usually with a few dollops of the mother tongue thrown in for added authenticity. Here content dominates form as the excess of language casts the chef as a heroic and creative genius whose food touches the sublime and is, therefore, in fact beyond description.
To put it brutally: if you’re angling for a Michelin Star, putting a picture of your food on your menu is akin to firing your whole staff on the night the judges show up.
When you’re presented with such a menu you know you’re in a place that values tradition and does classic dishes well with a strong focus on technique. Any more than, say, 7-10 choices for mains and the florid descriptions can overwhelm and make the eyes glaze over like honey-coated pork.
Modernist Menu Design: Form & Function
Like its poetic counterpart the Modernist menu represents a break with its Romantic past, but can’t be fitted into one style. Nevertheless, some generalisations can be made: most importantly, the ornate scripts and lengthy descriptions that mimic the heroic toil of the chef striving for perfection are gone. In the Modernist menu the relationship between food and language is taken to a higher level of abstraction. In other words, in this type of menu form is dominant over content, which means that the food on offer is represented rather than described.
A typical example of this is a menu that simply states the name of the dish with its ingredients listed beneath – for example: Spaghetti All’ Arrabiata: chilli, plum tomatoes, garlic, thyme. By simply stating the ingredients and saying nothing about how they are combined this form of menu design in fact speaks volumes.
The straightforwardness of simply listing the ingredients suggests pure flavours, organic ingredients, and the clean composition and juxtapositions that characterise meals served in such restaurants. Lastly, this type of menu is the least likely to include the price of the items on offer. This isn’t necessarily because it’s necessarily expensive – but because it would muddy the all-important effortlessness of the overall menu design.
Postmodernism – Or the Medium (Rare) is the Message
Today more and more cafés and restaurants use the postmodern menu. This type of menu is duly characterised by an emphasis on playfulness and populism as a reaction against the high-seriousness and formalism of the Modernist and Romantic type. Postmodern menu designs try to deconstruct or subvert the conventions of form and content altogether!
The most common ways of doing this are to use found objects to write menus on, use very casual, ironic language or puns, and having a menu that changes daily (preferably written on a blackboard to emphasise its temporariness). Some places opt for “secret” menus that require you to be “in the know” and so formally speaking don’t exist – which would infuriate dear old Jerry Seinfeld.
The ideal postmodern menu design found its expression at the cutting edge of fine dining with the work of Homaro Cantu: master chef, holder of a Michelin Star, provocateur-in-chief. Cantu, typically, took the menu design to the next level by gifting the world edible menus. By doing this Cantu merged form and content to make the medium the message – in other words, he closed the gap between language and the senses by making words taste of themselves – the ultimate dinner experience.
Where menu design can go from here remains to be seen. As we said earlier, in Singapore food – from fine dining to BBQ catering – is a constantly changing art so we should expect to see the menu design evolve alongside it. I’m still hoping for a restaurant with edible paper and flavoured crayons so I can draw and eat to my heart’s content!