Food+Drink » Dish Dining Guide - Summer 2013

The menu makes the first impression

Word Play

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Menu designers have a challenge: convey the restaurant's philosophy while helping sell some food.

"It's got to be simple and straightforward," says Jay Fletcher, a Charleston graphic designer who's worked with restaurants like the Rarebit and Poogan's Porch on their menus. "People aren't there to behold your beautiful menu. They're there to talk and enjoy themselves, so you need to just kind of present the options and have it be kind of cool but get out of the way pretty quickly too."

Jay Fletcher designed a retro, laminated menu for his client the Rarebit - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Jay Fletcher designed a retro, laminated menu for his client the Rarebit

Some chefs want their customers to ask questions; that's why they train their servers to know every single ingredient in a dish, even if they're not all listed on the sheet of paper in front of the diner. Others want to be completely self-explanatory, to make the selection process as easy as possible for the customer. Essentially, the menu can be as much of an art form as the food itself.

For his second venture, Opal Restaurant + Bar, chef and owner Patrick Owens designed the menu himself — on Microsoft Word. Two years later, it was time for an update, so Fletcher helped rebrand Opal and Langdon's, Owens' other establishment, late last year. ByrdHouse's Annie Byrd Hamnett handles PR for the restaurants, and she had a graphic design-oriented intern play around with Fletcher's fonts and logos for the new menus. "It all needs to be cohesive — the food isn't fussy, so the menu shouldn't be fussy either," Hamnett says. "I think you want to give people enough information to pique their interest, but you also want to leave some to the interpretation of the diner and maybe leave some to the interpretation of the server."

Opal's new menu is clean, easy to follow, and never overwhelming, which all echoes what Owens is trying to do with his cuisine. It has been expanded into two pages, with an extended entrée section and new descriptions for the 16 different charcuterie and cheese choices offered nightly, so the diner has a reference if the server isn't at their table at the time. It's still effortless, though. "I think it's just the overall image we wanted to put out there. Sometimes less is more," Owens says. "I want them to get excited and know that we're using the best ingredients we can find."

Allegra Dinardo stamps the date on the day's menu at FIG - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Allegra Dinardo stamps the date on the day's menu at FIG

A few years ago, the ladies at Stitch Design Co. helped refurbish the menu at FIG. "They were at a point in their history where they didn't want to look like a new restaurant and they didn't want to look like an old restaurant," designer Courtney Rowson says. "They wanted to look like the go-to resource for farm-to-table food and what you thought about when you thought about Charleston and a fresh and local dining experience." Since FIG's menu changes nightly, it needs to be switched out efficiently while still maintaining a visual impact, so Stitch decided to add a library-stamp dateline to emphasize that the choices are unique to each day.

All the menus are letter-pressed for added texture, which elevates the whole experience a little bit further.

The menu at FIG - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The menu at FIG

The dinner menus are affixed with brass screws to a masonite board, and the wine, dessert, and cocktail selections have their own masonite backers as well. "We wanted what we designed and presented to be as thoughtful and as thorough as the food that they were serving, and so we really took cues from the overall mission that they were trying to accomplish with FIG," Rowson adds.

The descriptions of items are sparsely populated, and for good reason. As chef and co-owner Mike Lata explains, server education is one of the cornerstones of the experience at FIG, so a lot is left in their hands. "Sometimes I give a nod to lesser-known terms because I feel it's important to clue in the savvy diners where the inspiration comes from," he says, but engaging the server enhances the overall experience for the diner. "There is definitely a law of diminishing returns when you over-explain something. I try to focus on the items or techniques that pique your interest and leave the rest to your imagination. I feel people find it refreshing — I know I do — and it puts you in the best position to under-promise and over-deliver."

 When it came time for Jay Fletcher to make a menu for the Rarebit, a lot of stylistic choices for the '60s-influenced neo-diner were already in place. "It was important that it look the part of this early '60s dog track bar," owner John Adamson says, especially since almost all the options offered are items that you would have seen on a menu in that era. "I wanted it to have a classic mid-century Hollywood diner feel to it — modern, clean lines, a little sexy, a little masculine."

Since the color palette and typography were already in play, Fletcher continued that mood. "The vibe of it needs to be in line with everything else that you've already done, but then after that it needs to be straightforward," Fletcher says. "If you overdo it, you run the risk that people are going to have a ton of questions or something's going to be illegible or something's going to be weird, so you have to straddle this line between something really, really awesome and fun and playful and great, but it's really just got a job to do." The Rarebit's food is meant to be unpretentious and uncomplicated, so the straightforward descriptions of dishes on the menu follow suit. "It's a step backward from the modern dining experience, which I find overwhelming more often than not," Adamson adds.

An equal amount of consideration went into the physicality of the menu. They didn't want it on a clipboard; it was supposed to be simple. Fletcher and Adamson decided on lamination. "I think everybody kind of liked it, because it's a pretty cheesy idea," Fletcher says. "You think lamination and you think something from elementary school. You don't think anything that's gonna actually look cool." But it does, and a rivet in the top corner helps make the menu look purposeful, like something made specifically for the Rarebit.

 A few years ago, the owners of Kickin' Chicken decided they wanted to franchise their ubiquitous wings-and-tenders joint. They had Fuzzco redesign the local chain's menu, taking into account the fact that there may be Kickin' Chickens all over the country pretty soon. "The old menu was very much based on KC's local, Charleston roots," says Helen Rice, Fuzzco's creative director. "There were a lot of inside jokes and things that you'd only catch if you knew the area," which could leave out-of-town diners out of the loop, whether they're tourists visiting a Lowcountry branch or new customers at new locations a region away. Kickin' Chicken needed a new brand and menu system that could speak to a bigger audience.

Fuzzco's new design is warmer and friendlier, pared down, cleaned up, and not reliant on location-based references, all of which should work to tie the menus, wherever they may be, together. There are vivid photos to highlight specific items and insider tips throughout the menu for unique-to-Kickin' Chicken items, like the Kickin' Chicken Sandwich or the Bobby Fries. "Little anecdotes and tips help people feel at ease and trust that the items they are ordering will be good," Rice says. And there are lots of jokes. "If you've ever been in a KC, you've seen that they tend to be filled with a lively, boisterous bunch of people. We wanted the menu to be an extension of that feeling — friendly, happy, and a little goofy."

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