Unique descriptions help define atmosphere along with food, local restaurants say


What makes a restaurant great? The little things.

Four years ago, this became a mantra of sorts for the owners of local Irish pub JK O’Donnell’s, which was about to open its doors for the first time. From the food to the utensils to the hand towels in the bathroom, every item inside the restaurant was being considered, tested and chosen with three words in mind.

“Attention to detail,” general manager Fritz Hoffman says.

It was agreed that Coleman’s – imported from the U.K. – would be the restaurant’s official mustard. The music overhead would be Celtic and the television would promote Ireland’s national pastime: soccer (or football, if you’re a purist).

This dedication to detail also included the restaurant’s menu.

Rather than presenting its customers with a traditional menu layout, the restaurant opted for something new – a restaurant menu that was actually fun to read.

Written by Matt Kelley, owner of local advertising agency One Lucky Guitar, the menu begins with a list of appetizers and a description. “Sure, we call them ‘starters’ – but they work equally well as ‘middlers’ and ‘finishers’ – we’re nothing if not versatile.”

And below “desserts”: “Note to menu designer: insert clichéd text about saving the best for last. Don’t make it sound like a cliché, though, because in this case it’s not.”

“The menu of a restaurant speaks to what kind of experience you’ll have at the restaurant,” Hoffman says. “Our menu talks to customers the way family and friends talk to each other. That’s the atmosphere we try to create.”

A unique menu is a selling point for a restaurant, Kelley says. Choosing to approach it with humor, charisma and bravado helps create an identity for the entire restaurant.

“The menu gives you a sense of the experience you’ll get there,” Kelley says. “It gives the restaurant a distinct flavor. Makes it feel custom and not corporate.”

For example, part of the fun of the 1950s-themed diner Arnold’s Drive-In in Decatur is reading the menu. Where else can you order a Richie Cunning Ham n’ Cheese?

Or a Wooly Bully, “the sauerkraut dog that don’t mess around!”

“A restaurant is more than the sum of its parts,” says Jason Smith, one of the owners of martini bar Club Soda. “The menu is just one part of the branding.”

Smith wrote Club Soda’s menu in 1999, including a separate menu for martinis. Filled with cheeky descriptions, the menu was one of the reasons sales of the martinis grew. But it also let customers know that, even though Club Soda was a fine dining establishment, it wasn’t stuffy, Smith says.

“The whole idea for the restaurant came from sitting in the garage, listening to Sinatra, drinking martinis and smoking cigars and wishing we had somewhere else to do it,” he says. “This was the Club Soda zeitgeist, and the menu had to mirror that. It needed to have that irreverent, sassy, smart-pants feeling.”

The dinner menu also features Smith’s writing. (The description for the French onion soup reads: “It’s cheesy. And messy. You won’t look cool eating it. You will, however, look happy.”) A few years ago, the restaurant changed the menu, swapping Smith’s text for a straightforward approach. Instead of quirky turns of phrase, the menu featured a list of the food with minimal description, says manager Noelle Reith.

“It lasted one season, and we had to change it back,” she says. “People actually like reading menus. It’s one of those little details that the customers love.”

Source: Emma Downs, The Journal Gazette


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