Restaurants USA, May 1998


A complete list of the 1998 Great Menu Design Contest winners

Institutional Foodservice

First Place: Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., New York, NY

Second Place: The Morris Inn Dining Room, Notre Dame, IN

*** Third Place: University of Georgia Food Services, Athens, GA

Best of Show

Big Bowl, Chicago, IL

Grand Prize Winners

First Place: Obachine(Dinner Menu), Santa Monica, CA

Second Place: 301 (Wine List), San Francisco, CA

Third Place: Damon's (Dessert Menu), Columbus, OH

Restaurant: Average Check Under $8 Per Person

First Place: Bulldog Deli, Inc., Starkville, MS

Second Place: Wrapsody, Dayton, OH

Third Place: Bixby's Bagels and Eats, Edina, MN

Restaurant: Average Check $8 to $15 Per Person

First Place: River Wildlife, Kohler, WI

Second Place: Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant, Newark, DE

Third Place: Holiday Inn Hotels (Breakfast Menu), Atlanta, GA

Restaurant: Average Check Over $15 Per Person

First Place: Long Ridge Tavern, Stamford, CT

Second Place: Bistro-An American Cafe, Bismarck, ND

Third Place: Arroyo Grille, Philadelphia, PA

Banquet Catering

First Place: Hotel Pattee, Perry, IA

Second Place: Mary Brady's Catering, Novi, MI

Third Place: Dayton Convention Center, Fine Host Corporation, Dayton, OH


First Place: Sazerac, Seattle, WA

Second Place: Friday's American Bar (Beverage Menu), Dallas, TX

Third place: T.G.I. Friday's (Dessert Menu), Dallas, TX

Most Unusual

First Place: Obachine(Lunch Menu), Santa Monica, CA

Second Place: Altos, Phoenix, AZ

Third Place: McGuffey's Restaurant, Asheville, NC

Looking for examples of exemplary menu design?

Look no further.

By Emily Arnoult

A careful blend of form and function in a menu produces the perfect vehicle to convey the essence of your restaurant to the customer. Like aromas that kindle the senses, a good design and a well-communicated theme spark the imagination-and higher sales. The winners of this year's Great Menu Design Contest show that it is possible to have a bill of fare that is functional while still having flair.

Best of Show, Big Bowl Chicago

"We take the attitude that [the menu] is a guide to a new journey," says Kevin Brown, president of Big Bowl, a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant. For this journey, the menu advises guests to "travel light," an approach that the contest judges felt comes through in the menu's clean design and simplicity. "We wanted a combination of user-friendly and readable, but at the same time, we wanted it to be used like a guided tour. Our servers are guides. Our menus are educational, with the history of the food, and explain to what degree we go to produce fresh Asian cooking." Fortune-cookie-like directions to life encourage readers to "smile frequently," "talk slowly," but "think fast" and to "slurp freely" and "see clearly."

The menu is part of an integrated approach to presenting the Big Bowl image. Warm honey-colored woods, deep greens and earth tones are used in the restaurant. The menu echoes the color scheme and the simplicity of the restaurant interior by using a single wooden chopstick on the cover and cream-colored pages accented with red italics and floating, wavy descriptions on the inside.

Although the format of the menu makes changes a little more difficult, and the investment was bigger than initially planned, Brown says he believes that the menu has been a great marketing tool and that guests get a lot of excitement from it.

"We want to make sure the customer has a complete experience when they come in. We want them to feel the excitement that we have about the food and the warmth of the restaurant. And we can put this in their hands to help them see that — and, of course, to help them decide [what to order]."

First Place Grand Prize Obachine [Dinner Menu] Santa Monica, California

The list of requirements for Obachine's new menu was long, says Frank Guidara, president and CEO of Wolfgang Puck Food Company. "We wanted our menu to be artistic and to carry the Asian theme, and we wanted it to tell a story about the concept and include the Oba leaf — the inspiration for the name of the restaurant."

Emphasizing the family-style items and offering wine selections were other considerations. They also wanted to describe, reflect and effectively complement the pieces of Asian art decorating the walls. Coping with so many demands, they knew that they would have to be careful in the design stage so that they would end up with an all-inclusive yet intriguing menu.

The painstaking process began with the custom design of a font that had an Asian but readable look to it and the search for the perfect paper. Guidara says it was Seth Anderson who really brought everything together. "He was part designer, part printer, part everything," Guidara says.

"It's been a labor-intensive production," he says. The paper is handmade and the brass plate is individually made and applied. Producing the gold die-cut is an intricate process, Guidara admits, but he says the overwhelmingly positive results make the effort worthwhile.

When they were finished, they knew they had a striking design-so striking that they expected some of the menus might be stolen. They have been pleasantly surprised that a few menus have been returned. "People have just appreciated them that much," says Guidara.

Second Place Grand Prize 301 [Wine List] San Francisco

The idea for the wine menu at 301 was to echo the look of the restaurant and the different textures used throughout, says Jim Brophy, a graphic designer with Off-Center Design Group in Wheaton, Illinois, which designed the menu. The building that houses 301 is narrow and small. Light woods and soft greens dominate the color scheme, with accents of gold and other colors. The cover of the menu echoes those colors and the square patterns that are used throughout the interior of the restaurant.

"We wanted to give the menu a bit of an Asian flair but not overdo it," says Brophy. The initial designs used woods of varying thickness, which gave the menus a heavy feeling. The resulting design — narrow, folded, corrugated cardboard tied with a moss-green ribbon — is softer and easier to handle and better reflects the comfortable look and feel of the restaurant, he explains.

"People buy things based on how they look and feel, and a good menu is really an extension of that," says Brophy. "Because wine lists are the counterparts to main menus, they often do not get as much design attention, but this would be something that people would want to pick up and see."

Third Place Grand Prize Damon's International [Dessert Menu] Columbus, Ohio

Michael Branigan, vice president of marketing for Damon's International, describes himself as a "nostalgia freak." He says that as he watched the reintroduction of songs and toys that he once played with, the idea for Damon's dessert menu came naturally to him — a View-Master with images of the restaurant's dessert offerings. "Nostalgia is about comforting things from childhood that are very memorable. No one has bad feelings about a View-Master."

The uniqueness of the toy, and the staying power of memories surrounding it, were in tune with what Damon's wanted from a menu. "In the merchandising world, a menu needs to be unique, and it needs to be memorable," says Branigan. As a father who logs a lot of time at toy stores, Branigan says he is struck by the inherent intelligence of children's toys. "I look for different ways to use them," he says. The nostalgia evoked by the View-Master and the customer interaction it inspires at the table are among the phenomenal outcomes of the menu's debut, explains Branigan.

To keep the menu fresh and new to customers, the photos on the image wheels are changed periodically, just as any menu would vary selections from time to time. Photos for the wheel require special setup, and wheel production requires a long lead time. Although the production process is difficult, the extra preparation is well worth it to bring nostalgia to the table, Branigan says.

First Place, Institutional Foodservice Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. New York City

New York City-based Restaurant Associates produces menus for all of its clients, but few have offered the creative outlet found in designing the menu for Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., says John Harding, vice president, director of marketing.

Harding came up with the idea to use the "jewel boxes" (as the plastic compact-disc containers are called in the industry), and in-house art director Doug Newton helped to design them. The artwork for the menu is taken from photographs by Lou Manna of three-dimensional murals displayed in cafeterias at Sony. The murals portray different ethnic foods, particularly those found in the New York City area.

The jewel boxes were very inexpensive — about 3 cents each — and Sony, of course, had plenty of them on hand. About 2,000 menus were made and distributed to employees through interoffice mail. "The menu has been very effective in increasing office-catering sales at Sony," says Harding.

Harding has been pleased with the response, and he says the menu has effectively conveyed a message. "We offer our foodservice accounts the excitement, the quality and the programs that people would expect to find in any fine restaurant. Wraps, sushi, anything you'd find in a New York City restaurant. Part of that is the menu — we bring that same excitement to foodservice," he says.

First Place, Specialty Sazerac Seattle

Jewel-toned baubles dangling from the artisan-made chandeliers in Sazerac inspired Niki Leondakis, vice president of The Kimpton Restaurant Group, to design the winning drink-and-appetizer menu for Sazerac. With such an artistic basis, the rest came easily to Leondakis, who designed the menu with the help of graphic designer Pat Walsh. "The actual idea development was a five-minute process," says Leondakis. "I wanted the same whimsical and fun ideas of the decor of the restaurant to be evident in the menu." A huge copper ribbon wrapping over the restaurant's entrance also proved to be a rich source of inspiration. It is reflected in the copper dangling star and the copper binding on the menu.

Colored beads on curling copper wires that twist out of the binding also give a nod to the restaurant's Big Easy basis. "Our chef, Jan Birnbaum, has spent a great deal of time in New Orleans, and the first thing you think of when you think of New Orleans is Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras beads," says Leondakis.

The restaurant's roots also run deep in the menu's offerings. Handcrafted cocktails that offer tastes of the South are listed in fun fonts and accented with clever descriptions-cocktails like "Sazerac," described as "The Traditional Cocktail of New Orleans"; "El Nino," which the menu says is "making everybody weird"; and the "Side Car," which, the menu claims, "Your grandmother drank them — and she knew what she was doing." The flip side of the menu reveals Sazerac's selection of "tasty morsels," "perfect little bites" and items "for the sweet tooth."

The menu is designed to sit atop the bar so customers can read either side. "It inspires impulse buying, because it is so eye-catching," says Leondakis. "We've had a great response."

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Emily Arnoult is a staff writer at the National Restaurant Association.

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