Why are some menus so confusing for customers?

Developing a restaurant menu that doesn't confuse customers is not necessarily simple – according to the research. As our food-cabulary expands and grows more complex, budding chefs must ensure their menus suit their target market, are written simply and stick to the theme.


A massive 83 per cent of Australians believe restaurant menus are too confusing, according to an Open for Business survey. A menu must be clear and concise and reflect the dish, but it appears this is a key area where the hospitality industry can improve.

The survey also found that close to three-quarters (74 per cent) of respondents have had to ask a waiter or waitress to explain what something was on the menu. While this can come down to the customer's level of knowledge, it's vitally important that restaurant and cafe owners write a menu that fits their audience.

What is so tricky?

By international standards, Australian patrons are quite knowledgeable of the culinary world. Nonetheless, as the 'food-cabulary' continues to develop, there are more and more instances of customers having no clue what a dish is.

Complex menu definitions can confuse customers.Complex menu definitions can confuse customers.

Vice President of OpenTable APAC, Lisa Hasen, summarised this situation well:

"Today's chefs are reinventing classic techniques and international dishes, and bringing them into a modern framework," she said.

"By pushing these boundaries to enhance the dining experience, some Australian diners are being challenged to keep up with food jargon; however, it definitely hasn't dampened their thirst for trying new dishes or cuisines."

With this in mind, here are the top five most misunderstood menu items and their common description, based on the Open for Business survey.

1) Mirepoix (68 per cent) – diced vegetables
2) Salmagundi (68 per cent) – salad plate of various meats, vegetables, nuts and flowers
3) Shakshuka (66 per cent) – eggs poached in a tomato and chilli sauce 
4) Pan haggerty (65 per cent) – vegetable dish containing potatoes, onion and cheese
5) Meunière (63 per cent) – fish sauce incorporating brown butter, lemon and chopped parsley

How to develop a menu in Australia

For hospitality management students, learning about menu clarity is a key part of respecting the customer experience. Of course, this is always a fine balance. Too complex and customers might be discouraged from returning. Too simple and it might not represent the efforts of the kitchen properly.

Menus should reflect the target customer.Menus should reflect the target customer.

To help, we've compiled a couple of our top restaurant menu planning tips.

  • Write to the audience – family restaurant menu should be able to be read by all ages. If, for example, you have a more up-market restaurant, then you can select more sophisticated terms for dishes.
  • Stick to the regional themes – veal with mushrooms is also called vitello ai funghi. Of course, while the latter should always be used to enhance the customer experience, it can help to add the common name as a point of reference.
  • Write as simply as possible – menu items with long and complex descriptions might seem fancy, but they can confuse customers. Instead, select words that are tantalising, but don't oversell the dish.
  • Be available to help – when there is confusion, make sure waiters and waitresses are always on the floor ready to communicate dishes and foods to the customer.

Running a successful restaurant is more than just a kitchen. Kenvale students learn menu planning, marketing and learn in a real world setting in Kenvale College's pop up restaurant. Learn more about this on one of our hospitality courses. For more information, get in touch with our helpful team today.

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