Menu design isn’t something that typically claims a lot of space in diners’ minds, so long as the information on them is presented clearly and they’re taken away quickly to be replaced by the meals they describe. But a handful of restaurants are changing that by presenting customers with visually thoughtful illustrated menus that are more than worthy of their place on the dining room table.
Whether evoking old-school diner placemats with illustrations of food and drinks, or celebrating the restaurant’s home city with a custom map, these illustrations add personality and whimsy to what could otherwise be an unremarkable part of the dining experience. Cocktail bars like Death & Co., Canon and Shelby feature drawings of the cocktails next to their descriptions, so you know what kind of glasses they come in. Which actually can be a huge deciding factor for prospective drinkers.
“I thought that was a brilliant idea because I hate when I get a coupe,” said designer Amy Morris of the Morris Project, who recently created the illustrated menus and more for Danny Meyer’s revamped bistro Manhatta. According to Morris, Meyer was inspired by New York Magazine’s 2019 photo collection of eccentric New Yorkers. Character illustrations adorn the menus, coasters, and matchbooks. In addition to illustrations of the drinkware, the NYC neighborhood-inspired cocktail menu also includes a hand-drawn map to shows diners where they are in comparison to popular landmarks. “When you look at the map you can start to orient yourself,” says Morris. “It just brings the location to life.”
Bart Sasso, founder of creative agency Sasso & Co. designed the menus for Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta, where he’s also a partner. “Vibe is so important and I think the menu goes a long way in helping that,” he says. While illustrated menus might seem like a newer trend, Sasso actually looked to the past while creating his, finding inspiration in New England’s colonial taverns, particularly Union Oyster House in Boston. “When you go back and look at older menus from restaurants or cruise ships, or even banquets, they’re just so much more interesting than where menus ended up when I got into this business,” Sasso explains. His design for Ticonderoga Club’s menu opens with an illustration of the space, and uses delicate linework to highlight items like a sherry flight and a 48-ounce steak.
Milton Carter, who designed the two-color illustrated cocktail menu at the Commodore in Brooklyn, was also inspired by older menus, specifically those from yacht clubs. Featured on a placemat, the cocktail list is illustrated by Nathan Gelgud and features beachy classics like pina coladas and sloe gin fizzes. Carter’s partner Mike Reddy illustrated the bar itself on the food menu’s cover. For the Commodore, which celebrates its 12th anniversary this year, the cheeky illustrated menu was a reaction to — and a rebellion against — the restaurant trends of 2010s. Carter says, “The idea of printing the descriptions on 40,000 place mats was kind of a swing in the opposite direction of the bespoke cocktail culture that was happening,” especially in the neighborhood of Williamsburg. You cannot change these menus on a nightly basis depending on which seasonal ingredients come in. “It was like, nope, here’s the drinks,” says Carter, and that set the Commodore apart.
Some restaurants are turning to illustrated menus not as retro references, but to make the in-person dining experience feel even more exciting after years of COVID-19 lockdowns and regulations. “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,” says Bryn Barone, partner at Che Fico in San Francisco. Che Fico’s menu is illustrated by Laura Umaña, a former hostess at the restaurant, and rather than showcasing cocktail glasses or menu items, it features a small boy cutting prosciutto. According to Barone, it speaks to the feel of the restaurant, and having Umaña as the illustrator makes it feel extra personal. But more than anything, it’s having a physical piece of art to change what it feels like to be in the restaurant. “When we reopened, we wanted to add an element that felt homey and welcoming, and made the experience of coming in and dining and picking up that piece of paper feel different.”
The current dining space is also just ripe for experimentation: “I think people are more playful now,” says Carter. “People are more open to an expensive thing that has a wink or a sort of humorous element, and maybe that’s hand in hand with what you’re seeing with the resurgence of illustration.” It’s as simple as people seeking experiences, wanting to relish in a space that has been meticulously designed and is also not their house. Just being in a restaurant may scratch that itch, but seeing illustrations on the menus, on the check holders, even on the walls, creates a more immersive experience.
“There’s so many people doing cool stuff in restaurants now, so many great artists and agencies that have aligned with restaurants all over the country, so we’re seeing more and more of it.” says Sasso. Menus become not just a way to enjoy the experience, but also a token to remember it; proprietors are saying these illustrated pages are turning into collectors items, or at least things diners like capturing on social media. It’s a thing to get obsessed with, to cheer you up and just make the whole experience more interesting. “There’s one customer who has the illustration of the [Commodore] tattooed on his leg,” says Carter.
Who’d do that with a menu that’s just a list?