Menus, as a list of prepared foods, have been discovered dating back to the Song Dynasty in China. In the larger populated cities of the time, merchants found a way to cater to busy customers who had little time or energy to prepare food during the evening. The variation in Chinese cuisine from different regions led caterers to create a list or menu for their patrons.
The word "menu," like much of the terminology of cuisine, is French in origin. It ultimately derives from Latin "minutus," something made small; in French it came to be applied to a detailed list or résumé of any kind. The original menus that offered consumers choices were prepared on a small chalkboard, in French a carte; so foods chosen from a bill of fare are described as "à la carte," "according to the board."
The contemporary menu first appeared in France during the second half of the eighteenth century, or The Romantic Age. Prior to this time eating establishments or table d'hôte served dishes that were chosen by the chef or proprietors. Customers ate what the house was serving that day, as in contemporary banquets or buffets and meals were served from a common table. The establishment of restaurants and restaurant menus allowed customers to choose from a list of unseen dishes, which were produced to order according to the customer's selection. A table d'hôte establishment charged its customers a fixed price; the menu allowed customers to spend as much or as little money as they chose.
As early as the mid-20th century, some restaurants have relied on “menu specialists” to design and print their menus. Prior to the emergence of digital printing, these niche printing companies printed full-color menus on offset presses. The economics of full-color offset made it impractical to print short press runs. The solution was to print a “menu shell” with everything but the prices. The prices would later be printed on a less costly black-only press. In a typical order, the printer might produce 600 menu shells, then finish and laminate 150 menus with prices. When the restaurant needed to reorder, the printer would add prices and laminate some of the remaining shells.
With the advent of digital presses, it became practical in the 1990s to print full-color menus affordably in short press runs, sometimes as few as 25 menus. Because of limits on sheet size, larger laminated menus were impractical for single-location independent re to produce press runs of as few as 300 menus, but some restaurants may want to place far fewer menus into service. Some menu printers continue to use shells. The disadvantage for the restaurant is that it is unable to update anything but prices without creating a new shell.
During the economic crisis in the 1970s, many restaurants found that they were having to incur costs from having to reprint the menu as inflation caused prices to increase. Economists noted this transaction cost, and it has become part of economic theory, under the term "menu costs." As a general economic phenomenon, "menu costs" can be experienced by a range of businesses beyond restaurants; for example, during a period of inflation, any company that prints catalogues or product price lists will have to reprint these items with new price figures.
To avoid having to reprint the menus throughout the year as prices changed, some restaurants began to display their menus on chalkboards, with the menu items and prices written in chalk. This way, the restaurant could easily modify the prices without going to the expense of reprinting the paper menus. A similar tactic continued to be used in the 2000s with certain items that are sensitive to changing supply, fuel costs, and so on: the use of the term "market price" or "Please ask server" instead of stating the price. This allows restaurants to modify the price of lobster, fresh fish and other foods subject to rapid changes in cost.
The latest trend in menus is the advent of handheld tablets that hold the menu and the guests can browse through that and look at the photographs of the dishes.
The main categories within a typical menu in the US are "appetizers," "side orders and a la carte," "entrées," "desserts" and "beverages." Sides and a la carte may include such items as soups, salads and dips. There may be special age-restricted sections for "seniors" or for children, presenting smaller portions at lower prices. Any of these sections may be pulled out as a separate menu, such as desserts and/or beverages, or a wine list. Children's menus may also be presented as placemats with games and puzzles to help keep children entertained.
Menus can provide other useful information to diners. Some menus describe the chef's or proprietor's food philosophy, the chef's resume, or the mission statement of the restaurant. Menus often present a restaurant's policies about ID checks for alcohol, lost items, or gratuities for larger parties. In the United States, county health departments frequently require restaurants to include health warnings about raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs and seafood.
As a form of advertising, the prose found on printed menus is famous for the degree of its puffery. Menus frequently emphasize the processes used to prepare foods, call attention to exotic ingredients, and add French or other foreign language expressions to make the dishes appear sophisticated and exotic. Higher-end menus often add adjectives to dishes such as "glazed," "sautéed," "poached," and so on. "Menu language, with its hyphens, quotation marks, and random outbursts of foreign words, serves less to describe food than to manage your expectations"; restaurants are often "plopping in foreign words (80 percent of them French) like "spring mushroom civet," "plin of rabbit," "orange-jaggery gastrique." 
Brian McGrory quips that, when going to a high-end restaurant, he sometimes feels that he needs "an unabridged dictionary, a Biology 101 textbook, and a pile of Fun With Phonics just to figure out the meaning of gianduja ice cream, hazelnut financiers, yellow watermelon, and bulgur crackers[--] just some of the inscrutable listings from the dessert menu..." Terry Pratchett satirizes this in his novel Hogfather, after a fancy restaurant has its stock of expensive foods replaced with mud and old boots. The resulting menu features such items as Panier de la Pate de Chaussures (Mud mousse in a basket of shoe pastry), Cafe de Terre, and Spaghetti Carbonara (boiled boot laces).
Part of the function of menu prose is to impress customers with the notion that the dishes served at the restaurant require such skill, equipment, and exotic ingredients that the diners could not prepare similar foods at home. In some cases, ordinary foods are made to sound more exciting by replacing everyday terms with their French equivalent. For example, instead of stating that a pork chop has a dollop of applesauce, a high-end restaurant menu might state "Tenderloin of pork avec compôte de pommes."
Although the French term "avec compôte de pommes" is an exact translation of "with applesauce," it sounds more exotic – and more worthy of an inflated price tag. Menus may use the French term "concassé" to describe coarsely chopped vegetables or "coulis" to describe a puree of vegetables or fruit. Another example is the French term "au jus," which means that meat is served with its own natural gravy of pan drippings.
In some fast food restaurants, each menu item has a number and patrons are asked to "order by number."
Menus vary in length and detail depending on the type of restaurant. The simplest hand-held menus are printed on a single sheet of paper, though menus with multiple pages or "views" are common. In some cafeteria-style restaurants and chain restaurants, a single-page menu may double as a disposable placemat. To protect a menu from spills and wear, it may be protected by heat-sealed vinyl page protectors, laminating or menu covers. Restaurants weigh their positioning in the marketplace (e.g. fine dining, fast food, informal) in deciding which style of menu to use.
While some restaurants may use a single menu as the sole way of communicating information about menu items to customers, in other cases, the meal menu is supplemented with ancillary menus, such as:
- An appetizer menu (nachos, chips and salsa, vegetables and dip, etc.)
- A wine list
- A liquor and mixed drinks menu
- A beer list
- A dessert menu (which may also include a list of tea and coffee options)
Some restaurants use only text in their menus. In other cases, restaurants include illustrations and photos, either of the dishes or of an element of the culture which is associated with the restaurant. An example of the latter is in cases where a Lebanese kebab restaurant decorates its menu with photos of Lebanese mountains and beaches. Particularly with the ancillary menu types, the menu may be provided in alternative formats, because these menus (other than wine lists) tend to be much shorter than food menus. For example, an appetizer menu or a dessert menu may be displayed on a folded paper table tent, a hard plastic table stand, a flipchart style wooden "table stand," or even, in the case of a pizza restaurant with a limited wine selection, a wine list glued to an empty bottle.
Take-out restaurants often leave paper menus in the lobbies and doorsteps of nearby homes as advertisement. The first to do so may have been New York City's Empire Szechuan chain, founded in 1976. The chain and other restaurants' aggressive menu distribution in the Upper West Side of Manhattan caused the "Menu Wars" of the 1990s, including invasions of Empire Szechuan by the "Menu Vigilantes", the revoking of its cafe license, several lawsuits, and physical attacks on menu distributors.
Some restaurants – typically fast-food restaurants and cafeteria-style establishments – provide their menu in a large poster or display board format up high on the wall or above the service counter. This way, all of the patrons can see all of the choices, and the restaurant does not have to provide printed menus. This large format menu may also be set up outside (see the next section). The simplest large format menu boards have the menu printed or painted on a large flat board. More expensive large format menu boards include boards that have a metal housing, a translucent surface, and a backlight (which facilitates the reading of the menu in low light), and boards that have removable numbers for the prices. This enables the restaurant to change prices without having to have the board reprinted or repainted.
Some restaurants such as cafes and small eateries use a large chalkboard to display the entire menu. The advantage of using a chalkboard is that the menu items and prices can be changed; the downside is that the chalk may be hard to read in lower light or glare, and the restaurant has to have a staff member who has attractive, clear handwriting.
A high-tech successor to the chalkboard menu is the 'write-on wipe-off" illuminated sign, using LED technology. The text appears in a vibrant color against a black background.
Some restaurants provide a copy of their menu outside the restaurant. Fast-food restaurants that have a drive-through or walk-up window will often put the entire menu on a board, lit-up sign, or poster outside, so that patrons can select their meal choices. High-end restaurants may also provide a copy of their menu outside the restaurant, with the pages of the menu placed in a lit-up glass display case; this way, prospective patrons can see if the menu choice is to their liking. As well, some mid-level and high-end restaurants may provide a partial indication of their menu listings–the "specials"–on a chalkboard displayed outside the restaurant. The chalkboard will typically provide a list of seasonal items or dishes that are the specialty of the chef which are only available for a few days.
With the invention of LCD and Plasma displays, some menus have moved from a static printed model, to one which can change dynamically. By using a flat LCD screen and a computer server, menus can be digitally displayed allowing moving images, animated effects and the ability to edit details and prices.
For fast food restaurants, a benefit is the ability to update prices and menu items as frequently as needed, across an entire chain. Digital menu boards also allow restaurant owners to control the day parting of their menus, converting from a breakfast menu in the late morning. Some platforms support the ability allow local operators to control their own pricing while the design aesthetic is controlled by the corporate entity. Various software tools and hardware developments have been created for the specific purpose of managing a digital menu board system. Digital menu screens can also alternate between displaying the full menu and showing video commercials to promote specific dishes or menu items.
Websites featuring online restaurant menus have been on the Internet for nearly a decade. In recent years, however, more and more restaurants outside of large metropolitan areas have been able to feature their menus online as a result of this trend.
Several restaurant-owned and startup online food ordering websites already included menus on their websites, yet due to the limitations of which restaurants could handle online orders, many restaurants were left invisible to the Internet aside from an address listing. Multiple companies came up with the idea of posting menus online simultaneously, and it is difficult to ascertain who was first. Menus and online food ordering have been available online since at least 1997. Since 1997, hundreds of online restaurant menu web sites have appeared on the Internet. Some sites are city-specific, some list by region, state or province.
Another phenomenon is the so-called "secret menu" where some fast food restaurants are known for having unofficial and unadvertised selections that customers learn by word of mouth. Fast food restaurants will often prepare variations on items already available, but to have them all on the menu would create clutter. Chipotle Mexican Grill is well known for having a simple five item menu, but some might not know they offer quesadillas and single tacos, despite neither being on the menu board.
In-N-Out Burger has a very simple menu of burgers, fries, sodas, and shakes, but has a wide variety of "secret" styles of preparations, the most famous being "Animal Style" burgers and fries. This can also occur in high-end restaurants, which may be willing to prepare certain items which are not listed on the menu (e.g., dishes that have long been favorites of regular clientele). Sometimes restaurants may name foods often ordered by regular clientele after them, for either convenience or prestige.
- Jim Heimann (ed.): Menu Design in America: 1850-1985, English/German/French. Taschen, Köln, Germany 2011. ISBN 978-3-8365-2662-3
- Gernet, Jacques (1962). Daily Life in China: On the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276. pp. 50, 133–134, 137
- Rebecca L. Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Harvard, 2000: ISBN 0-674-00685-2)
- Sara Dickerman, "Eat Your Words: A Guide to Menu English" (slate.com, byline April 29, 2003, accessed Nov. 27, 2007)
- McGrory, Brian (September 19, 2004). "$28.95 for that?". The Boston Globe (Boston.com).
- Clines, Frances X. (1994-01-16). "Building the Szechuan Empire". The New York Times. Retrieved September 17, 2011.
- Erikson, Chris (2010-06-28). "The Chinese Menu Wars". The West Side Spirit. Retrieved September 17, 2011.
- Bernstein, Emily M. (1994-01-02). "The Menu Wars, Continued". The New York Times. Retrieved September 17, 2011.
- Lii, Jane H. (1996-07-28). "The Chinese Menu Guys". The New York Times. Retrieved September 17, 2011.
- Goodale, Gloria (October 19, 2007). "At fast-food joints, try the secret menu". Boston: Christian Science Monitor. ISSN 0882-7729.
- - Official Site
- OpenMenu.org - The first standard for restaurant menus
- Digital Menu Boards, New Zealand
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas Digital Collection; Menus: The Art of Dining
- University of Washington Library - Menus Collection