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December 12, 2017
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Image courtesy of Osteria Francescana.

Whether visiting a restaurant based on a friend's recommendation, an attractive magazine review or having simply stumbled upon it via the Internet, many subtle elements fuse together throughout a dining experience to make it the ultimate adventure for an epicure. From the moment you've entered the restaurant and opened the menu, mystery and excitement grows as elaborate dishes reveal themselves in pleonastic terms on the well-dressed menu. However, despite arousing excitement and/or trepidation on your taste buds, it's difficult to know whether the string of succulent words describe a plate of pleasant surprises or a tasteless cooking disaster.

Tasting Menu Osteria Francescana Italy

Osteria Francescana's "Tasting Menu". 
Image courtesy of Osteria Francescana.

The menu acts as the front-of-the-house representative of the kitchen, and ultimately reflects the gastronomical and experiential values of the owner and the chef.

When presented with a menu prior to eating, our subconscious subtly interacts with and reacts to it - its design and diction both serving as culinary foreshadowing. Design elements - layout, font, colour and graphics - are responsible for creating a watering mouth filled with excitement and anticipation; or, on the contrary, a dramatic loss of appetite, disappointment, or a mundane dining experience. A menu is not only able to hinder the experience, but can also discourage a diner from making a return visit. 

In The Restaurant: From Concept to Operation, author John R. Walker describes how menu design and layout "has been called the silent salespersons of the restaurant…" whilst "menu and menu planning are the most crucial elements of the restaurant."

When it comes to menu design, tradition is usually respected; according to Walker, menus are generally 9 x 12 inches or 11 x 17 inches, most often a single page, and its design must work around a focal point (just above centre for single page menus) to draw attention to a restaurant's special items. The menu must communicate clearly to the diner; the font must be easily readable and menu items should not be crammed together.

Yet, sometimes the most memorable dining experiences come from breaking tradition. Such is the case for Osteria Francescana, a three-star Michelin restaurant founded and run by chef Massimo Bottura in Modena, Italy. Currently ranked fifth on the list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants, Osteria Francescana serves avant-garde Italian cuisine in a 100-year-old osteria whose oyster-coloured walls are home to artworks such as Francesco Vezzoli's "La Vie en Rose"; Carlo Benvenuto's "Table and Glass"; and Mario Sciffano's "World Map." Bottura explains that because the restaurant doesn't have any windows, the "artwork serves as a view into the thinking process of the chef," as well as "Osteria Francescana's unique style with their poetic interpretations."

When it comes to the menu, we hope that guests feel drawn to read it but remain with many questions in their minds...to be answered as they proceed with their meal, answered by the plates themselves.

It doesn't come as a surprise, then, that Osteria Francescana's menu is truly a fusion of art and poetry. In keeping with its Osteria heritage, its main menu is sophisticated and clean with a playful and quirky duality infusing it with excitement and innovation.

While designing the menu, Bottura was aware of the menu's importance. He revealed his conceptual thinking behind the restaurant's style and its relation to the menu to The Genteel: "Osteria Francescana is named after the Church of San Francesco at the end of its [the restaurant's] street. Thus, in all of our process of interior decoration and the design of the menu, we tried to respect that kind of sobriety and humility. Our colours are sombre, our decorations restrained, and the menu descriptive but with enough white space for meditation."

Osteria Francescana's menu is rich in cuisine offerings, but the menu tightly curated to fit with Bottura's culinary vision. One such example is the graphic spacing of the dishes on the menu, which allows the mind to calmly wander and explore the kitchen.

The menu's thoughtfulness doesn't stop with its layout; its diction is simple, not overly descriptive, but incredibly enticing. Bottura goes on to reveal: "When it comes to the menu, we hope that guests feel drawn to read it but remain with many questions in their minds...to be answered as they proceed with their meal, answered by the plates themselves."

With iconic dishes such as "a potato waiting to become a truffle," Bottura exemplifies the kitchen's gastronomical dedication and playful sense of humour, characteristics also reflected in the menu's artwork. The artwork is by local watercolour artist, Giuliano Della Casa, who specialises in illustrations for poetry and novels. The abstract illustration on the restaurant's "Tasting Menu," featuring a watercolour painting of Modena with the 11th century Duomo and the 85-metre high Ghirlandina bell tower, is the most memorable; sprinkled with the lights of the medieval city, the image signifies that this dining experience will be steeped in cultural heritage, abstract explorations of gastronomy and a particularly special set of memories.

Beyond a menu's graphic elements, the menu itself - in its physical form - can be carefully manipulated to communicate the restaurant's underlying concept. The menu of Restaurant at Ponte Winery in Southern California wine country is as refreshing as the restaurant's summer rosés and farmer's market ingredients. Its menu, "Summer Day," features thin green lines and lettering, printed on light off-white paper. The paper quality and font echo the restaurant's focus on sustainability and natural food ingredients. Folded into a square, through its unraveling, the menu takes the diner on a culinary journey.

Dessert Menu Ponte Vineyard Southern California

Ponte Winery dessert menu. 
Photograph by Alina Kulesh.

By unfolding two flaps of the menu upwards and downwards, the wine list is revealed - by the bottle on the left, and by the glass on the right. After a wine choice is made, additional menu flaps fold out to the sides - the left side features appetizers, the right side features lighter dishes, and the central panel highlights specialties.

Folding and unfolding the menu creates an unexpected experience - reminiscent of the children's paper fortuneteller game or the unraveling of a celebratory package. The desert menu arrives in a clear mason jar, a neat hole in the lid holds a tucked in dessert menu, done in the same design style as the main menu. The restaurant's decisive innovation on the menu's structure and form builds excitement prior to the meal's arrival - proving that presentation plays a big part in building the ultimate dining experience.

An effective menu is important even when it appears there isn't one. Garde Manger seafood restaurant in Montreal, Quebec philosophises on its no-menu concept: "Our blackboard menus allow total freedom of menu design and reinterpretation. We believe it allows us to work with the freshest [food] product to put the best plate on the table." Garde Manger's choice to not have a per diner menus sends a message: the restaurant is about change and freedom. Using old-school blackboard and chalk, the restaurant creates a single large menu available for the entire restaurant to collectively view, which promises a no frills experience served with high-quality food. This clear rejection of the menu per diner tradition mirrors the comfortable experimentation that occurs within its progressive kitchen.

The role of the menu may seem slight, yet it is arguably the most important and decisive aspect of the dining-out experience. Font, content and presentation all work towards challenging how the final dining experience will be interpreted and interacted with. Before food gets a chance to speak for itself on a diner's taste buds, their judgment has already been made. Diners may not be conscious of a menu's design when placing the first forkful in their mouths, but its carefully thought-out elements have already begun working at the back of their minds to create an established and exciting dining experience.

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