At its most basic, a menu is simply a way for a restaurant to communicate its offerings and their prices to its customers. But perhaps even more important, says Alison Pearlman, the author of a new book on menus called May We Suggest, a menu has to convince diners that they want what the restaurant is selling. So how do menus do that—and are they somehow subconsciously manipulating our choices? Are there universal principles of effective menu design that savvy diners can identify and outsmart? Listen in this episode as we decode the history and science of the not-so-humble menu.
For as long as there have been places to eat outside the house, there have been menus, in one form or another. For most of its history, however, the menu hasn’t been the individually printed document we think of when we hear the word today. According to Pearlman, the earliest menu we’ve found is a list written on the wall of a bar in Pompeii, dating back to the second century B.C. Menus have also often been communicated verbally, or even, during China’s Southern Song dynasty, in the form of special viewing dishes—sample dishes that servers would bring out for diners to choose among.
In the United States, the first printed bill of fare dates back to 1834. According to Josh Kun, who told Los Angeles’s history through the public library’s menu collection in his recent book, To Live and Dine in L.A, most early menus weren’t linked to restaurants, but rather to special events, as the high cost of printing individual menus made sense only for a banquet. (In Los Angeles, Kun added, the earliest menus were printed before the city’s first books.) Nowadays, printed menus have trickled down to the rest of us—and the shifts in their design over time reveal not just the changing economics of restaurant dining, but also trends in demographics, aesthetics, and values.