Behind the Bar

How Your Menu Design Can Teach Customers to Order Faster

A cocktail menu next to a cocktail.
Help guests help you by making the menu concise, clear and easy to order from. Photo via Flickr/star5112.

In a high volume bar, you want your menu to be clear and readable, so that your guests can quickly find the drink that speaks to them. Whether online or in person, your menu might be the first thing your guest sees. It’s worth thinking about the cues you can give your guests to connect them with a drink they will love. We caught up with three industry veterans for their take on what makes a menu user-friendly.

Get graphic

At Pier 6, in Boston, this season’s cocktail menu is illustrated. “I go to a lot of bars, and sometimes when there's so much text and it's just a list of 15 or 20 drinks, they kind of jumble all together,” says Sal Boscarino, owner at Pier 6. “So the goal was to be able to assign a graphic to each cocktail to make them really pop.”

Excerpt of vintage-inspired illustrated cocktail menu at Pier 6 A sampling of the illustrations on this season's cocktail menu at Pier 6.

Boscarino works long distance with his graphic designer, Rob Helmstetter, on menu design. For this project, he sent photos of the drinks which Helmstetter turned into vintage-inspired illustrations. “I was really inspired by old cocktail menus that had illustrations that made you kind of picture in your head where the drink was going to take you,” says Helmstetter.

Since the change, Boscarino notes that drink returns have gone down. One of his drinks is a spicy Paloma, which guests didn’t always expect to be spicy, even though jalapeño was listed as an ingredient. Now the jalapeño is illustrated in front of the glass. “If you're not a spicy person, you're probably going to pass on that cocktail,” says Boscarino. “I have noticed the surprise from the guests has gone way down.”

Ryan Magarian, who owns Oven and Shaker and Hamlet in Portland, Oregon, spells his drinks out on each of his menus with complete recipes, right down to the ounce. “I like that because it gives you a specificity of what's in the drink,” says Magarian.

Keep to categories

“I do like when people group it into the type of liquor, when people have it organized by rum or whiskey or vodka, that to me is really efficient,” says Boscarino.

“I came up with three terms that directed the majority of drinkers to the right drink,” says Magarian. “They’re fresh, dry and strong.” Each of his menus has either a section or an indicator using these terms. “We don't find ourselves answering a lot of questions. Those are words that people just kind of gravitate towards naturally. The fresh people, they kind of know they're a fresh person. It's more psychological. I just felt those words were so definitive in who they attracted and I knew what drinks to put in those categories.”

Magarian mentioned the menu at Pouring Ribbons in New York City, which ranks drinks on two sliding scales from Refreshing to Spiritous and Comforting to Adventurous.

Excerpt of the cocktail menu at Pouring Ribbons Pouring Ribbons uses a sliding scale to visually rate drinks from Refreshing to Spiritous and Comforting to Adventurous.

Call it a spade

Magarian leans toward descriptive names. “If it's a Walnut Blackberry Collins, call it that,” he says. “Naming it exactly what it is using historical context, that's just a really quick way to help somebody understand what they're getting.”

Stay simple

“We tried to get simple and to the point so people can read it visually very easily,” says Boscarino. “Our fonts are larger, and we only have four drinks to a page which I think makes it very easy to read. If you're including too much information the customer can be confused and it causes them to ask more questions and make the process a little longer.”

Magarian advocates for shorter menus. “Have the confidence to put the 5 to 8 drinks you know represent what you need to get done,” he says. In his bars, he includes a note in small print encouraging interested guests to ask for the not-so-secret secret menu which includes 85 additional drinks. Those who are interested in having a more complex experience have that option, while others are happy to order off the shorter menu.

Pier 6 lists all of their cocktails at one price and tries to limit the number of ingredients in each drink. The menu redesign seems to be working. “We’ve seen an increase of about 25% in our specialty cocktail sales this year compared to last year,” says Boscarino.

No matter what direction you go with your next menu design, everyone agrees on one thing: the most important part is spending time on it.

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink for online and print publications. She’s always up for a conversation about cocktail history, preferably over a Corpse Reviver #2.

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