How have menu covers changed over the years?

Perhaps the most exciting and difficult time for a new or existing restaurant is the creation of the menu.  This is a time when chefs, owners, managers, and designers come together with a vision to separate themselves from competition and create a unique dining experience.  Essentially, a restaurant’s menu is setting the foundation for the establishment’s future success, and while the individual food options are important, the cover is what really makes the menu stand out. 

Presentation is the most powerful tool in selling a good product in the culinary industry, which is why the restaurant menu cover is just as important as the way each food item is presented on a plate.  However, before the process of developing a menu can begin, dozens of considerations must be given.  Tradition, content, visual design, location, time period, and culture are just a few of the criteria that are taken into account.  So, how has this timeless process of menu creation evolved the style and fashion of such covers over time?

While organized eating centers have been around since the beginning of civilization, the printing press is a relatively new invention that brought restaurant menus previously carved on stone walls and put them into the hands of the customers.  This evolution ultimately brought about the menus of today.  Over recent years, with improvements in technology and the invention of different synthetic materials, menu dynamics have become more creative and visually engaging.  Menu covers that used to be encased in simple plastic or bound like small books now have engraved metals, multiple visual elements, and even digital aspects to the menu covers themselves.

Content and culture also play a major role in the way a menu cover is presented.  In the past, eating at a restaurant was simple. Portions were large, ingredients were common, and the menus reflected the simple nature of the institution itself.  The modern food industry has evolved into a highly diversified arena of culture, tradition, and innovation with menus that reflect the individuality that every restaurant seeks in such a cutthroat business.  Chic metropolitan bistros may offer an engraved metallic list of perfectly crafted cocktails and food items while a northern Italian fine dining restaurant will offer a beautifully bound book filled with elegant parchment inserts and a foreign story of your imminent culinary adventure.  All the while, the menu’s cover is the first impression and the most important part of captivating the patron’s interest.          

The computer has also played a major role in menu development.  Almost every restaurant in America has its own website featuring its menu, events, directions, contact information, and everything else the restaurant owner would like to project onto his customers.  The restaurant website is the virtual modern day menu cover that has the ability to capture audiences with music and flash video like no menu cover has been able to before.  Apple Inc.’s iPad or similar tablets are now featured in many restaurants in place of the traditional menu, which offers a variety of new captivating features as well.  Not only does the tablet offer the name of the restaurant, but it also has the ability to take the customer on a virtual tour of the culinary adventure and overall experience that is to come.          

The menu has undergone hundreds of years of innovation to reach the modern brilliance that is seen in restaurants today.  Traditions have changed, ingredients have become more dynamic, and experimentation and individuality have become the keys to running a successful culinary business.  However, it continues to be the menu cover that captures customers, and its contents that dictate the menu’s success.