July 26, 2013 7:22 pm

The art of the menu

Menus with beautiful and functional designs from restaurants in Paris, London, San Francisco and Sydney

Taillevent, Paris

Such is my fondness for this menu that it has lain in my office for many years. Its age is conspicuous: it is priced in French francs, so dates to the pre-euro era, and it boasts an extensive fish section, reflecting a time when top-quality fish was in more abundant supply than today.

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Nicholas Lander

In spite of its vintage, this artefact from one of the world’s most elegant restaurants is the epitome of clear design. It shows how the restaurateur, by putting himself in the place of the customer, can create a menu that is comprehensive, democratic and exudes a sense of occasion.

Although today’s Taillevent menu lacks the woodcuts that adorn this version, it follows the same principles. It is large-format and spread over four pages. The opening page covers the first and main courses, the final page the desserts. The middle spread conveys the highlights of the exceptional wine cellar (the current owners are the Gardinier family, of Château Phélan Ségur in Bordeaux).

There is no separate wine list handed to a presumed host or hostess, so there can be a lively discussion between all those at the table about which wines will be enjoyed.

Once Jean-Marie Ancher, Taillevent’s maître d’, hands you a menu and you hold it up to take in what is on offer, the size of it encloses you in your own world: just you, the menu and your appetite.

Taillevent menu©Luke Albert
Wine cellar menu©Luke Albert

Quo Vadis, Soho, London

This is an example of the power of excellent design. Sam and Eddie Hart took over this rambling restaurant in 2007 and hired Jeremy Lee as head chef in 2012. Lee brought in designer Julian Roberts of Irving & Co, who works round a central, changing illustration by John Broadley. Collectively they have transformed the business.

This menu takes the eyes and stomach on a gentle tour. Top left are “kickshaws”: hot, pinched parcels of puff pastry filled with minced chicken. (The recipe is from Lee’s Scottish mother while “kickshaws” is a corruption of the French quelque chose.) Centre stage is the day’s menu, a well-balanced choice of five starters and main courses. Around the edges are dishes to appeal to those with particularly small or large appetites. And, because this is Soho, there is always a theatre menu.

Quo Vadis menu©Luke Albert

Zuni Café, San Francisco

This menu excites me visually on several fronts. I can immediately spot those dishes that I would want to eat sitting in the California sunshine: the house-cured anchovies with celery; the bowl of polenta with mascarpone; and Zuni’s faithful Caesar salad and roast chicken for two cooked in the brick oven.

Then the menu effortlessly takes me on a tour of those farms which, if they have passed the scrutiny of Judy Rodgers and Gilbert Pilgram, Zuni’s owners, and their chefs, will necessarily be the most reliable producers: Watson Ranch for lamb; Wolfe Ranch for quail; and Evans Ranch for beef. Not to mention the chorizo cured by Rymee Trobaugh, Zuni’s kitchen manager.

Finally, it is admirably concise and easy to navigate. The list of aperitifs, sodas, beers and coffee in small print at the bottom makes all those separate pieces of paper that clutter so many restaurant tables completely unnecessary. Pick up this menu, sit back and relax.

Zuni Café menu©Luke Albert

Café Sopra, Sydney

Blackboard menus have long been the mainstay of brasseries in France, and I have only happy memories of the waiting staff at Bistrot Paul Bert in Paris explaining the day’s dishes to me as they carried the blackboards from table to table.

But this menu from one of my favourite places in Sydney conveys even more. Sopra’s diners sit next to shelves of colourful produce at Fratelli Fresh deli, so there is an extra layer of excitement as these blackboards signal how the fruit, vegetables and herbs will rapidly be transformed and brought to your table.

Blackboard menus also appeal because they seem timeless and yet reflect the elegant hand of a particular member of staff. Twenty-first-century technology has not been able to create an equally low-cost substitute, although the practice of projecting the menu on to a wall via a laptop as at Monvínic, in Barcelona, will doubtless become increasingly common.

Why not send us a picture of a particularly striking restaurant menu? Either email magazineletters@ft.com or upload to Twitter using the hashtag #FTMagmenus

Café Sopra blackboard menu©Luke Albert

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