Behind the Bar

The Art of the Menu at Trick Dog

Bar drink menu that resembles a rainbow of Pantone swatches
Trick Dog's first menu, inspired by Pantone swatches.

Ordering a cocktail at Trick Dog is almost as much fun as drinking one. You could find yourself navigating a tourist map of San Francisco or rotating a horoscope wheel with a different drink for each Zodiac sign. But there's a method behind the playful menu concepts.

"Having the menu be a little bit silly really helps to set people's expectations that it's not a stodgy, stuffy place where you can't talk loud or you have to be wearing a bow tie," says Morgan Schick, creative director of the Bon Vivants, the team behind Trick Dog.

Every six months, the San Francisco bar introduces a new menu that features 12 drinks. This gives people time to develop a relationship with the bar and work their way through the cocktails over time, according to Josh Harris, founding partner of the Bon Vivants.

"We didn't want to have a long novel of hundreds of cocktails," says Harris. "We also knew that we didn't just want to have an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper."

Bar drink menu shaped like a spinning zodiac wheelTrick Dog's 2014 zodiac-inspired menu paired a dozen drinks with their corresponding astrological signs. All photos courtesy of Trick Dog.

Schick, who has a background in graphic design, says their team approaches the menu's design with the same care they use when selecting the glassware and ice. Menus that require extra interaction are another way to connect with the people on the customer side of the bar.

"If you have a piece of paper with 12 drinks written on it, that's about as easy a way to present information as you can imagine," Schick says. "Whereas, if you have to twist a wheel to expose them or flip through a book of records, it's less functional in a basic way, but it definitely increases people's involvement with it because you can't grab it, scan it and toss it away."

Menu designed as a calendar featuring dogs in costumes for each monthThe latest version of Trick Dog's cocktail menu features bulldogs in sunglasses, corgis in rainbow pants, patriotic golden retrievers, and a cocktail for each of them.

Every menu design touches on something that's part of people's lives outside of the bar experience. Right now, the menu is a 2016 dog calendar—each cocktail corresponds to that month’s canine. Everyone is familiar with how a calendar works, so there's no confusion about how to use the menu.

"We pay a significant amount more attention than one might think to the usability of the menu," says Harris. "And that was a lesson we learned when we did the record menu, which was our second menu."

The menu based on the team's favorite records was more difficult to use than they anticipated. It was a book containing 12 records, one for each drink on the menu. When people flipped through the book, records would often fall out. Not everyone understood the song names on the records were the names of the drinks. The team has taken pains to make sure future menus are fun without sacrificing clarity.

When it comes to finding the sweet spot between whimsy and function, the team says the Chinese restaurant menu concept is their favorite. That menu included photos of each drink with the name written Chinese characters alongside a phonetic pronunciation and item number. Harris says the photos opened people up to cocktails they might not have tried before.

Bar menu designed to resemble a Chinese restaurant menuThe Chinese menu concept, which paired photos of each drink with an item number and a phonetic pronunciation.

"While there may be cocktail ingredients you don't know in this drink, you also see that it is brown and has a big ice cube, and you know that there's whiskey. And while you don't know what this other thing is, you like Old Fashioneds so you might give this one a shot," Harris says. "It got us thinking about the way that people engage in these different drinks and how clearly can you spell it out through the menu in ways that are not so on the nose."

So how did they decide to create a menu based on a Pantone color swatchbook? And how did they figure out what a cocktail inspired by a Corgi wearing a rainbow tutu tastes like? Harris and Schick figure all that out with Bon Vivants co-founder Scott Baird and Trick Dog bar manager Caitlin Laman.

"We all talk about how stupid we think each other's ideas are, and we take a piece of one idea and a piece of another and a piece of another," Harris says. "They sort of lead us to wormhole into a place where everyone starts to align and ultimately one of those ideas pops out."

Their goal is to create an exciting menu that's also easy to use in a dark bar on a crowded Saturday night. When suddenly everyone starts riffing on different aspects of the same idea, the team knows they've hit the jackpot. It's this collaborative spirit that has led the Trick Dog team to building menus that go above and beyond standard, disposable drink menus.

Bar drink menu that looks like a San Francisco tourist mapThe tri-fold tourist map from mid-2014, with drinks corresponding to attractions like the Castro Theatre and the Painted Ladies.

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