Question about restaurant menus

So I’m designing a restaurant menu for a fictional company (for practice) and was curious, why do menus typically only have photos of 2 or 3 items per page while they list many more items? Do they only put photos of the really good items? I see some local places here that incorporate a photo for ALL their items next to their descriptions. Is there a right or wrong way to go about including only a couple photos per page of my menu or is there a set norm to follow?


Some, usually upscale dining, have no photos at all. Personally, I think a photo of every item is excessive. If you’d like to include photos it should be the restaurant’s best sellers, or unique/exclusive items, chef’s specialty, etc.

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Even some not-so-upscale places don’t put photos in their menus. What they do instead is have a really nice hard-back cover, and slip-sheet menus printed up to go inside, usually changing seasonally. Most of the places I eat are not the chain type though, just mom&pop privately owned pubs, diners, sit-down restaurants.

The only place I eat that has pictures on its menu is Friendly’s. And they are slowly going out of business, one shop at a time.

Nothing but anecdotal observations, but it seems it’s the big chain restaurants that include photos — the kinds of places found at freeway exits. And they’re typically laminated so they can be sponged off in the kitchen when soiled by somebody’s gravy covered fingers.

When I’m looking online for new restaurants to try, though, I always like seeing what the food looks like. Sometimes Google Reviews or Yelp is good for this. When I’m in the restaurant, I typically just ask the waiter or waitress.

Food shots are hard, though. Making food look appetizing is something of a specialty skill for photographers. Most restaurants don’t have the budgets for this kind of thing that the big chains do.

I’ve always found pictures of food in a menu to be tacky. The only reasons I see for using them is, 1. if they are promoting a special of some sort, or 2. if they are trying to communicate without words for cultural reasons (i.e. Asian restaurants).

A general rule of thumb is the more pictures in the menu, the cheaper it is. IHOP, Fridays, Beef O Brady’s… vs. The Sovereign, The Beach Bistro… will mostly just be elegant text.

So look at the menu, the prices, and start from there. Look at menus. Do a little research.

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National chains design their menus at the corporate level, and use heavily retouched food photography by proven specialists to depict select items, especially those that are new, or part of a special section or promotion.

I’d call that a dire mistake in just about any case, even if the images are impeccable (and they never are). When you see that, does it look good? Are the images too small to be of any impact? I don’t see how they can show every dish at an effective size unless their menu is also a coffee table book.

In my opinion, when you’re the designer making the design decisions, zero photography is the safest option for producing a good finished product. Let the item names and well-written descriptions tease the diner into forming a mental image, while the typography suggests the level of elegance to be expected in the food and the atmosphere. This is especially true when you’re designing for a “local,” establishment, where viable food photography doesn’t already exist, or isn’t handed down from a corporate Marketing parent. If the objective is something richer than type-on-paper, imagery of the building and locale, especially anything that can be considered unique or of special interest often works well.

I don’t have much experience with menus in the US, but from my experience, photos on menus are particularly useful when there is a large tourist population in the area and also places where many locals are illiterate. I’m currently a tourist and I don’t speak the local language. Photos on menus are great!

So for your design, think about those points and if your fictional restaurant menu needs photos at all.


I can certainly see how that would be helpful for tourists. I believe they have a lot of photos of dishes in restaurants in japan too, I’m not sure if that’s the reason aswell but it beats explaining that you want the veggie dish. Good call.

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