How Restaurant Menus Have Evolved To Elevate The Dining Experience

It's not just the restaurant industry that's been upended by Covid-19 — menus are also in a state of flux, but their newest evolution is improving diners' experiences in unique ways. The first and most obvious pandemic-related change: Some paper menus disappeared entirely in favor of QR codes. In fact, half of all full-service restaurants in the U.S. added a QR code menu option in 2020, per The New York Times, as they're contactless and make price and ingredient updates easier.

And it's not just your imagination – menus have been getting smaller. However, with supply chain and labor shortages, smaller menus can potentially help kitchens operate more efficiently. Cooks can devote more attention and creative focus to specific dishes instead of getting overwhelmed by a too-long list of options, chef Marcus Samuelsson said (via Food & Wine). Other chefs are also making major changes to their menus: Wolfgang Puck, for instance, said that as beef prices get more expensive, he's working to "balance the menu" to include more affordable, high-quality meatless dishes (via Yahoo! Finance). Now, there's another change brewing: In response to less-than-enthusiastic consumer reactions to electronic menus and digital ordering, per Eater, more restaurants are once again paying attention to the design of their physical menus as a vital part of the dining experience.

Hand-illustrated menus are the latest trend

An unspoken truth of the restaurant industry is that most menus are full of mind tricks to get you to spend money — and the visual look of the menu is often intentionally crafted to drive behavior, per historian Allison Pearlman's book "May We Suggest." The color scheme can communicate how upscale or casual the eatery aspires to be and can even stimulate your appetite, per restaurant consultants Aaron Allen and Associates. Fonts matter, too: Rounder typefaces can cause you to associate desserts with being sweeter (via BBC). And while photos on menus can put diners off, per Daily Mail, some restaurants are finding that hand-drawn illustrations have a decidedly positive effect.

The latest evolution to hit restaurant menus? Restaurateurs are embracing design as a way to elevate the aesthetic of the menu and upgrade the dining experience. In addition to offering a retro flair, illustrations on restaurant menus can create an inviting, exciting, and memorable "vibe," per Eater.

And in fact, some say tangible art is a reintroduction of optimism as Covid-19 continues to put restaurants out of business. "As we come out of QR code land, it's nice to have something that's palpable, and feels unique, and feels special, and integral to the space," Bryn Barone, a partner at Che Fico in San Francisco, tells Eater. So next time you dine out, you might be getting not only a more streamlined and focused menu but also one that adds an artistic and whimsical flair to your experience.