A restaurant’s menu is best approached as a living document. Instead of offering the same meals and items every day, a good menu shifts and evolves along with the seasons, restaurant themes, and even customer preferences.
While some restaurants pride themselves on offering new selections each week depending on the freshness of local produce or other environmental factors, most restaurants stick to making occasional seasonal changes and dropping in a new fan favorite dish every once in a while. Regardless of the food you serve or the atmosphere of your dining room, every now and then, your menu will need a refresher.
You can do a menu engineering analysis every quarter to determine which menu items are most profitable and most popular — these are the ones that should always be highlighted and hyper-visible on the page. Then, you can use that information to guide the rest of your design decisions.
If you are already in the habit of updating your menu regularly, you’re in good company with 31% of restaurateurs saying that they update their menu on a monthly basis and 24% saying they do it seasonally.
What should be on a restaurant menu?
While no two menus are exactly alike, there is a collection of components that make up every one. When coming up with new restaurant menu ideas, remember to keep these factors in mind at every stage of the design and planning process:
Menu items with concise and enticing descriptions
Well organized menu sections such as lunch, dinner, and dessert
Restaurant logo and branding
Restaurant contact information including address, phone number, web, and social media platform handles
The material that the menu is made out of such as plastic, wood, or metal
The menu font should fit the theme and tone of your restaurant
A children’s section or separate menu
What are the different types of restaurant menus?
Restaurants can have a few different types of menus for a few different reasons. For example, a restaurant might have a brunch menu, a lunch menu, and a dinner menu, and the brunch menu changes weekly while the rest of the meals stay mostly the same.
When choosing the type of menus your restaurant will offer, think about your ideal customer. You can even run tests or surveys to find out what your patrons want out of a menu from length, to offerings, to specials, and more. At the end of the day, you can let your sales speak for themselves and tailor your menu by adding more of what’s already selling like hotcakes. (Maybe it’s your hotcakes! Add a whole customizable hotcakes section with different toppings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Menu ideas number one, two, and three? Check, check, and check.)
Here are examples of types of restaurant menus:
Static menu: Remains the same for the most part. When updated, it’s usually a full menu change.
Daily/Weekly menu: Changes daily or weekly depending on supplies or the chef’s choice.
Seasonal menu: Changes on a cycle like seasons or a set amount of time.
Diet-based menu: Designed for a given diet like a Gluten-free menu or a Vegetarian menu.
A la carte menu: Offers each item individually. Changes regularly.
Prix fixe menu: Offers multi-course meals for a fixed price, can be used as a promotional or seasonal menu option.
With an idea for the general concept of a restaurant menu and some different types of menus in mind, it’s time to put pen to paper with actual ideas for items on your restaurant menu.
5 Steps for Coming up with New Restaurant Menu Ideas
Whether you’re redesigning your menu completely or giving your current one a seasonal tune up, coming up with restaurant menu ideas is a collaborative process. No one runs a restaurant completely on their own, throughout this process don’t shy away from tapping into your most creative and communal side in order to create a menu that not only stays true to your restaurant theme and vibe, but keeps your customers coming back for more week after week.
1) Determine your menu theme.
Every restaurant menu needs a theme.
Let's take a look at the food truck revolution. The most successful food trucks all have one thing in common — Grilled Cheese Truck, Lobster Roll Truck, BBQ Truck, Fish Taco Truck — they all serve specialized items instead of a large variety. With the use of a short and to the point menu that’s aligned with their branding and name, food truck customers know just what to expect in the quick time they have to determine whether or not to order from it.
What should all restaurants learn from food truck menu development?
Create catchy, themed dish names for signature dishes.
Develop a niche within your restaurant category.
Expand on your restaurant’s theme over time.
A clear menu theme is the easiest and most straightforward way to attract the customers you want — and the customers who want you.
So the first step in coming up with new restaurant menu ideas or menu offerings is first to make sure your menu has a laser-focused theme. The rest of the ideas will need to align with this theme, so having a clear, aligned vision at the start will help any creative brainstorming sessions be more productive.
Looking for your restaurant theme? Think of what your restaurant is versus what it is not.
Is your restaurant a place for kids? Is it ideal for groups or sharing, or more of an individual meal restaurant? A restaurant like Olive Garden has a clear theme. It’s casual Italian-American food with family-style dining options, so adding an item like a new “Meatballs 3 Ways” appetizer to share, would fit with the overall restaurant and menu theme.
2) Always be on the hunt for menu inspiration.
In the brainstorming phase of designing or updating your menu, it’s a good idea to surround yourself with inspiration all day, every day, everywhere you go, and in everything that you do. Being open to inspiration when it comes your way and paying close attention to everything food related that you encounter allows you to remain in tune with what’s hot and new in your industry.
A few ways to expose yourself to potentially inspirational moments to spark creativity when crafting your restaurant menu include:
Subscribing to consumer food and industry magazines
Watching your favorite cooking and food travel YouTube channels and TV shows
Keeping your eye out for new restaurants, then check out their menus and reviews to see what factors connect with customers
Following chefs and restaurateurs on social media
Eating at new restaurants
Traveling to new places and trying new ingredients or local dishes to inspire your palette
Just remember, don’t let your inspiration slip through your fingertips. To make the most out of your menu inspo, keep a masterlist of it all. This way, once it’s time for you to sit down and write your menu you can pull out your list and get right down to it.
Menu Engineering Worksheet
Use this menu engineering worksheet, complete with intricate menu engineering formulas, to determine areas of strength and weakness in your restaurant's menu.
3) Create a menu formula.
Now, with all these ideas and a theme that fits in with your overall restaurant branding, there needs to be a standard formula for your menu, otherwise it can get out of control fast.
To make sure you’re creating a comprehensive menu, ask yourself the following questions when formulating your dish and meal ideas.
How many total menu items do you have?
What are your menu categories?
Are there any dietary symbols that will require a key?
How many proteins do you want to inventory?
Will you serve specials?
Will you have different menus for each meal of the day or use a single menu?
The list can go on and on, but this is just a few questions to get you thinking. Once you have a general idea on your restaurant's menu theme and items, you can begin building your menu with a designer.
4) Add specialty, seasonal, and promotional items to your menu.
When it comes to the order of deciding on your restaurant menu items, start by inserting the standard plates or core offerings into your menu. These are the dishes that never change and stay on your menu through every season. There’s no hard and fast rule about how many standard plates you include in your menu, this will be dictated by the theme of your restaurant and your overall menu design strategy.
After you play your favorites, look at your open spots. Then look at your list of remaining menu item ideas. Fill in the rest of the spots with your menu ideas based on how related they are to the theme of your menu, availability of ingredients, and diner needs or preferences.
5) Edit, combine, and refine your menu.
Not everything will fit into your menu perfectly. Adapt ideas to fit your format rather than formatting to fit your ideas.
To begin, establish the format before looking at your ideas. Then, either edit, combine, and refine your menu until it is an accurate and enticing reflection of what your restaurant has to offer.
Editing Your Restaurant Menu
Say you need a steak dish on your menu, but you also had an idea for a pork dish on your list. You can usually adapt the dish to fit your needs. Why not offer the dish and offer the meat as a choice (like eggplant and chicken parmesan)?
This is another area where menu engineering analysis comes in. If you’ve learned that you’ve got a few menu items that are not particularly popular, and not particularly profitable, it might be time to give them the boot. To learn more about categorizing your menu items on a matrix of profitability and popularity, check out our full-length, free menu engineering course.
Combining Items on Your Menu
Combining dishes from your giant list of restaurant menu ideas will allow you to create even more unique offerings that your customers will love. For example, if you need a braised dish and a pasta dish, consider combining the two elements into one dish. This process will help you create new flavors unique to your restaurant and create multiple versions of your classic dishes.
Refining Your Menu
Once you create your menu by narrowing down your potential new items, make sure you refine it. It has to fit your restaurant's theme and perfectly fill in the blank space on your menu that was made for no other item. Take one more pass through your menu, trimming the fat and narrowing down your offerings until it has been refined into the perfect menu for your restaurant.
When refining a restaurant menu, think about each dish and ask yourself:
Is this menu item popular?
Is there anything else like this menu item?
How does this menu item fit in with our frequent diners’ preferences?
If we removed this dish, would our restaurant patrons be upset?
How valuable is this menu item to our profits?
Seasonal or promotional items can be a source of attracting new patrons, upselling existing restaurant patrons, and testing the limits of your culinary creativity, but make sure to review your restaurant menu regularly and keep it updated.
Restaurant Menu Pricing Ideas
Once you’ve decided on the restaurant menu design and items you think will best serve your customers, pricing can be adjusted strategically to best get those hotcakes selling.
When updating your menu pricing, keep these tips in mind:
Determine the cost of your items and popularity during different seasons.
Promote dishes with ingredients in season, rather than paying more for out of season items and risking the dish not taking off.
Research the market and show value beyond the price itself.
As always, you can test out restaurant menu pricing and ask your customers and staff for feedback on which items are doing the best and how to make them more valuable.
The format of your menu from pricing to dish selection to design can and should be flexible — amendable and capable of evolving alongside your restaurant — but for the most part, your customers have expectations. If you stray too far or change your design without notice, your new menu can confuse your guests. As a rule, your format should not compromise your menu's focus. Instead, by crafting a menu that remains on theme and is an inspired creation you’ll be able to welcome your customers back to your restaurant each week.
To get started creating the perfect menu for your restaurant, here’s How to Make Your Menu a Money-Maker Using Restaurant Menu Engineering.