The Experience Menu

A remarkable new approach to cocktail menus is emerging, and – surprise! – it has nothing to do with technology. This approach engages customers in a new way, one that might lead to higher sales than a standard menu.


The concept of a menu (though not of a restaurant) may have existed in ancient Egypt in 2,000 B.C. In China, handwritten paper menus existed in A.D. 1,000. But the á la carte menu as we know it today took form in the late 18th to early 19th century, first in Europe, especially France, and a bit later in America. The word “menu” has its origins in the French phrase “á la minute,” meaning “cooked to order.” As with hotels, bars and restaurants, menus were created to accommodate travelers patronizing inns and taverns that evolved into hotels, restaurants and bars.

There may be thousands, even hundreds of thousands of variations in menu design. Presentations range from chalkboards to menu boards, from the single-page card (“carte”) to the book-like leather binder, and all the way to today’s digital tablet menu. Designs run the gamut from simple typography to elaborate works of art, and in between include every type of illustration and photography imaginable.

So isn’t it curious, perhaps even astonishing, that the core content of the menu – a list of a restaurant or bar’s products, with or without descriptions – is essentially unchanged? Until now, that is.


The seeds of a new approach to menus may have been sown in London at the Langham Hotel’s famed Artesian bar. I wrote about a unique element of their bar menu on these pages a year ago:

I found my favorite bar menu education piece in last year’s Spirited Awards menu winner, London’s Artesian bar at the Langham. Their amazing – but simple – “Cocktail Flavour Map” graphically positions each of their cocktails on a kind of scatter chart, according to its degree of flavor attributes (Light & Crisp, Delicate, Fruity & Refreshing, etc.).

This summer, Artesian launched an enhanced version of the Flavour Map, with cocktails represented on a flavor wheel that is color-coded according to the descriptive style and flavors of each cocktail, rather than simply a list of ingredients.

This new way of describing cocktails is impressive, yet it falls within that core content of menu, products and descriptions. The cocktail experience menu hadn’t been born yet. The infographic menu would come first.

the experience menu by ned barkerTHE MENU AS AN INFOGRAPHIC

Infographic is short for “information graphics” and refers to multiple points of information conveyed through visual representations. A successful infographic combines multiple pieces of information or data into a single graphic that enables one to absorb the information quickly and clearly. Sadly, the term is widely abused, as many believe that simply using nice graphics to convey information constitutes an infographic.

The infographic idea is best illustrated in the brilliantly simple device created by Martin Kastner (of Crucial Detail) for Grant Achatz’ Alinea restaurant in Chicago. Kastner created an inventive way to use a single circle to describe each menu offering relative to every other dish. With just one circle per dish, Alinea communicates the relative size of the dish, its level of sweetness and the intensity of its flavors.

Enter Troy Sidle and Pouring Ribbons in Manhattan’s Alphabet City. Pouring Ribbons, named 2013 Best New Cocktail Bar by Time Out New York, is part of the Alchemy Consulting portfolio of award-winning bars. Sidle, an Alchemy partner, wanted a unique menu and he was inspired, not by the Artesian menu, which he hadn’t seen at the time, but by a stint at Alinea.


Sidle’s muse steered him in a slightly different direction. Even the ingenious Alinea menu presentation was still rooted in describing its contents. Pouring Ribbons menu describes its offerings, too. Its menu cover presents a grid with four quadrants and each quadrant focuses on the customer’s mood instead of the product’s description. For example, drinks in the top left quadrant might provide a comforting, refreshing experience, while a cocktail in the lower right quadrant is for the adventurous, spirituous imbiber. The menu uses numbers to identify each drink and colors to signify “house” or “classic.”

Certainly this is an imaginative infographic. But it is more than that, and also less – for the cover reveals no additional information. Unless I open the menu and seek out #15, I know only that it fits my comforting but spirituous mood, and that the recipe is a Pouring Ribbons creation. Sidle explains, “With our menu, it’s less important whether a cocktail has gin or rum or whiskey, or ginger or strawberries, or a gentian liqueur or a house-made bitter. It’s much more important how the ingredients all work together. The grid reflects that.” The Pouring Ribbons’ point of view is the customer’s drinking experience. It’s engaging. The menu asks “what’s your mood today” instead of stating “here’s what we have.”

Many customers are taking to the approach. Some place an order based only on the cover’s grid, and only look at the description after sampling the drink.

But there’s much more to this than customer experimentation. Sidle notes that with their first menu (they change seasonally) Pouring Ribbons sold more gin-based drinks than vodka-based drinks. He and the others at Alchemy have never witnessed a sales mix like this before. And they’ve noticed that certain types of guests favor certain quadrants. Alchemy can now link customer types and drink preferences by category, clearly a leap forward for menu engineering and analysis.

Earlier I said that this approach could lead to higher sales. Let’s pretend that an experience menu is offered at a bar with a happy hour, and that 45 percent of drinks sold during happy hour come out of quadrant three. Now you have a basis for customer focus. You can use quadrant three attributes, whatever they are, to create happy hour promotions. You can create a happy hour food offering that pairs with quadrant three drinks. Why not fine-tune your music offering to the attributes of quadrant three? When gathering an email list, ask customers to identify their preferred quadrant. Create coaster designs for each quadrant and use them accordingly. And the possibilities go on.

Pouring Ribbons, like Alinea and Artesian before it, is onto something. Two uncharted menu dynamics are at work. The first is the use of creative infographics to enhance the description of food and beverage items; and the second (at Pouring Ribbons) is the description of items relative to the customer’s mood or feelings, using the experience menu.

Will this type of menu presentation become a trend? I think the surface of these approaches has just been scratched, and I have many more questions than answers. Will this work for beer menus? (I think so.) How about wine lists? (Price variation may be an impediment.) Are there better adjectives than “adventurous” and “comforting” or should the adjectives/moods change seasonally? Is “quadrant” the optimal division?

Personally I look forward to an experience of continued menu design innovation.

menu experience by ned barker