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Why don't more menus have pictures of their food?

Is it because it might be construed as tacky, and low-brow (see Denny's, Chli's, etc.)?

Is it because it would be too expensive, esp. if you change your dishes regularly?

Is it because it is considered unnecessary?

Sometimes I wonder if pictures on a menu would defuse alot of diner issues before they even start.

You would arguably know how much (or little) food your app or entree was, thereby avoiding rants of "I paid $X for this beef carpaccio and all I got was two damn small slices of beef!"

You would know the preparation of the dish, e.g. whether that burger you ordered was a "knife-and-fork" job, or something easily suited for hand-and-mouth delivery.

Curious as to your thoughts.

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  1. It seems rather expensive to take nice photos of every dish and print them onto menus. The item description is a more optimal place give information as it is cheap and acts like a teaser, giving info without ruining the surprise that a photo would. If customers are curious as to how the burger will most likely be eaten, they should ask their server.

    I don't really understand how a photo would clarify anything, you'd have like a 2" pic and have to try and make out all the details.

    1. The thing about language vs. visuals is that with language people interpret and form judgements based on different interpretations, but with photos everyone basically sees the same thing. Also, the process of interpreting language is somehow more vivid than having it already done for you with a photo.

      Very good question, ipse, but quite hard to formulate an answer.

        1. I forgot to note that in Japan, many restaurants have photos of the food or even plastic displays of it. This may hold true to other countries as well, I'm not sure.

          3 Replies
          1. re: AndrewK512

            Many Japanese restaurants in the U.S. have plastic displays of their food as well.

            1. re: ipsedixit

              Hey, those plastic displays of food are a work of art and usually get my business if it looks good enough to eat.

              1. re: monku

                But not if they're so old that they're faded --- and dusty!

          2. "Is it because it might be construed as tacky, and low-brow "


            17 Replies
            1. re: Harters

              Many fast food restaurants use photos for their illiterate or barely literate customers who can point to "A #4" instead of having to read the menu description (which is impossible)

              1. re: Sherri

                Sherri, the main reason there are those photo menus at fast food restaurants has more to do with hearing and speech impaired customers than "barely literate" ones. Someone with aphasia, severe dysfluency, or who does not speak can use these to order for themselves instead of relying on another person.

                1. re: elfcook

                  Is that the origin of those pictures at McDonald et. al.?

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    back when I worked in speech therapy, we had many clients who liked being able to go to any restaurant where they had a picture menu, for ease of communication. McD's has (or had - it has been a while) picture menus behind the counter, so people could point to their choices. It is harder with the pics up above the counter, but still helpful (person could point & hold up 2 fingers for a #2 meal, for instance).

                    1. re: elfcook

                      Wouldn't writing it on a piece of paper be equally effective, if not easier in some respects?

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        depends on if your writing ability is also affected (say by a stroke). Really, there is no one way to cover all the possible issues, but pictures fulfill a wide range of needs. Plus, they can make pretty pictures for advertising, even if the actual food doesn't really resemble it :)

                      2. re: elfcook


                        Cool. I know hearing and speech impaired customers can point to those pictures, but I didn't know this is the origin. I thought it is more like a beneficial self-effect.

                    2. re: elfcook

                      I'm only reporting what a FF spokesperson told a meeting of Literacy Volunteer tutors. The photos were initially developed for their illiterate clientele. I remember being quite moved by their concern; later I was disgusted at the mercenary motives.

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          They (FF) can sell more burgers when customers can simply point to photo #4 instead of being intimidated by written words they (customer) cannot read.

                          1. re: Sherri

                            While I am as eager as any one to trash the abuses of corporate America in some of its more unseemly tactics in pursuing profits, the flip side of the pictures is the concept of access. Without photos, they are effectively denying access to those who cannot read, who do not know the 'home' language of the restaurant, or who cannot communicate in words their order.
                            If I had to guess, I'd say that if the sole outcome of the photos was to increase sales to the illiterate, then they would not be worth the money (at least not in highly literate countries). I think pictures likely increase profits more b/c they induce people, literate and not, to order more.

                    3. re: Sherri

                      "Many fast food restaurants use photos for their illiterate or barely literate customers who can point to "A #4" instead of having to read the menu description (which is impossible)"



                      Are you sure this is right? I've always understood that the pictures on those fast food boards were to make the food more enticing for young children.

                      Given that fast food restaurants run so many incessant commercials (in print and TV), I would imagine even an illiterate person would be able to order without the need for additional pics when standing in front of the clerk taking their order.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        As I replied originally, "I'm only reporting what a FF spokesperson told a meeting of Literacy Volunteer tutors. The photos were initially developed for their illiterate clientele. I remember being quite moved by their concern; later I was disgusted at the mercenary motives."

                        I can only answer that this is what we were told at a large regional meeting. He went on to explain that it was easier for those who did not wish to advertize their illiteracy to simply point while saying "I'll have #6" or whatever.

                        Do the photos serve double or triple duty? Of course they do. For non-english speakers it is nice to be able to hold up three fingers indicating your meal choice instead of being forced to stumble through in an unfamiliar language. Earlier someone pointed out that for the speech-impaired it is also helpful. Are these photographs attractive to children? Of course they are.

                        But to return to my original statement, the Literacy Volunteer tutors were told that the photographs were developed for the illiterate customers, a portion of the buying public they were not being served as well as they could be.
                        I was naive enough to think the FF industry was benevolent in their care of this underserved group.

                        Nah. Everyone's money is the same color. They were simply missing a market niche and changed that with photographs.

                        1. re: Sherri

                          I'm not sure why this strikes you as mercenary. Should fast food places deliberately try to exclude non-readers? What purpose would that serve? Who would benefit from such a practice? The non-readers aren't harmed by having access to pictures in addition to words, so what's the problem?

                          To me, it's analagous to installing a ramp so that wheelchair-bound customers have access. Is that also mercenary?

                          1. re: small h

                            I had stars in my eye that the FF giants were operating out of the goodness of their hearts, doing something nice for people who needed help, etc but became disillusioned when the decision was reduced to dollars and cents instead of altruism. Blame me; there's no logical reason for my feelings.

                            1. re: Sherri

                              I understand. But note that even though the chains weren't practicing loving kindness (and really, why should they? businesses aren't charities), people still benefit. I'd rather have a bad intent and a good result than the opposite.

                    4. re: Harters

                      Yes and yes. A Chinese place sent us a menu with pictures on it. They were so bad we spent ten minutes making fun of it, but it inspired us to send an employee across the street for some takeout from another Chinese place.

                    5. Wow you have a fertile mind, my friend...

                      couple of thoughts:

                      - tacky
                      - you can't even get the specials and their price in writing, the idea of pictures is frightening
                      - jfood loves to imagine the food as he reads
                      - lawyers...some lawyer will sue the restaurant because the dish did not look EXACTLY as the picture

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: jfood

                        What jfood said, i addition to the cost.

                        1. re: EWSflash

                          tonight they use a sage leaf on top instead of some other herb. And those who hate sage complain.

                        2. re: jfood

                          While I didn't complain let alone sue, I have been misled by the picture on a website when ordering in. The 'tamarind ribs' looked nicely grilled and thinly glazed
                          - certainly NOT battered, deep fried and soaked in sauce (I hate anything prepared this way). I actually wouldn't have ordered them except for the tempting picture, as the local mag
                          said they were gloopy and sweet. So have to vote NO for pics.

                          1. re: jfood

                            I ditto jfood -- all his points are spot on!

                            1. re: jfood

                              "jfood loves to imagine the food as he reads"

                              jfood would hate a place I know. Before you order each course, they bring you a sample of the plated dish. Mercifully, there's only two or three dishes at each course.

                              1. re: Harters

                                Au contraire on that one. Jfood would LOVE that type of a place. Is that a UK place or has such a brilliant idea hit the shores a tad to the west?

                                Think Gellato places in Italy. Always have to try a few flavors before the final verdict.

                                1. re: jfood

                                  UK, I'm afraid, mon ami. It does solve the problem of, having ordered a dish in the usual way, seeing another being servbed to another tabel and *really* wanting that one.

                                  Place is only about 30 minutes drive from home.

                              2. re: jfood

                                If they could sue for bad representation the fast food industry would be in big trouble...none of the pictures look anything like the stuff they're serving.

                                1. re: monku

                                  Those are arts. You need to think abstract.

                                2. re: jfood

                                  I know lawyer-bashing is always good fun, and I'm usually among the first to join in. But seriously, if litigation over misleading pictures is a legitimate concern, can you explain to me why every McDonalds, Starbucks, and Dennys in the world has menus festooned with color photos of things that bear only a passing resemblance to the crap they serve?

                                3. I prefer a picture of the chef

                                  1. For the same reason I prefer written reviews to photos, I prefer the same on a menu. And, yes, tacky :)

                                    1. It would remind me of traveling in other countries where many languages are spokent and they do this to clarify for those of all countries. I think it is a great idea and would love to see that also be done in the states.

                                      Maybe it would be cheesy, but would work for me. There have been countless amounts of times that I have gotten something and expected a lot different.

                                      It would also keep me from peeking and snooping at other people's meals to get an idea of what looks good. Admit it, Im not the only one.

                                      1. Contrary to many of the other posters, I find the concept interesting. Would they always reject any cookbook that includes photos of the food as well?

                                        12 Replies
                                        1. re: junescook

                                          And noone seems to complain about those NYTimes restaurant reviews that include slide shows of the food. Especially if I am new to a restaurant, I often find myself looking around trying to see on other people's tables what might be certain dishes on the menu.

                                          1. re: junescook

                                            Agree on both points.

                                            2 points for thought.

                                            1 - The cookbook photo is a quick snapshot of the end product and a goal for you to achieve. You could do likewise by reading every step in the recipe to visualize it, but the photo is the price of admission. How many times did the photo look great and then when you read the recipe you stopped halfway through it, not wanting the pickled kidneys maserated with eyeball of baby tiger. The menu in a restaurant should give those two items in the <25 word description.
                                            2 - :-)) Mrs jfood kicks jfood because he stares at all the plates going by.

                                            1. re: jfood

                                              To continue on this line of thinking.

                                              Lots of times I will have friends who visit Chinese restaurants and lament the fact that they do not know what in the world they are ordering because the menu translations are comical, at best, and downright inaccurate, at worst.

                                              So, if there were pictures appended, it might make ordering that much easier and perhaps facilitate the exploration of a foreign cuisine.

                                              I've often felt the same way when ordering Ethiopian food -- it's just so foreign to me and not as topical in the popular press that even with the helping hand of a helpful server, ordering can be like looking through a binocular from the wrong end.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                Yup...but that is the best part of going to a place in which you are clueless about the cuisine.

                                                Admit it, ask for help, and go with the flow.

                                                Take the testoterone out of the equation and ask for directions. :-))

                                                1. re: jfood

                                                  Go with the flow.

                                                  True enough.

                                                  But oftentimes, esp. at Chinese restaurants, the servers will steer their American clientele to your typical "safe" Chinese-Americanized dishes.

                                                  In that case, going with the flow leads you down into a big shallow puddle ...

                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                    Personally I would like photos. And so far as cost goes, here is a 2 year old independent sushi place with pictures... on their To-Go menus as well. :)


                                                  2. re: jfood

                                                    I so rarely agree with you, j --- LOL --- but I think this is huge. For me, life is a great big adventure and I want my dining experiences to be the same. I abhor the old (was it Holiday Inn) slogan: "the best surprise is no surprise at all." No thank you.

                                                    1. re: c oliver

                                                      well in a hotel no surprises is a good thing.

                                                      wrt food, jfood loves to ask the owner of M&Ps, "OK what should I eat?"

                                                      1. re: jfood

                                                        Re hotels - you're a weinie :)

                                                        Re food, oh yeah. We recently met alanbarnes at a Hunan place. We knew, thanks to a CH, to ask for the "special" menu. The Chinese owner was also our server and she just loved our ordering. We didn't really know what the pig ear dish was but just the look on her face was worth it. My attitude towards food is that I'd rather have the occasional disappointment than miss something really special.

                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                          That's jweenie to you

                                                          jfood found a new szechuan and the hounds told him to go to the last 2 pages of the menu for the real stuff. Clueless jfood has developed a good relationship with the host and they work through his order...over the top great. Milky and crispy shrimp are some of the best food he has ever eaten. Too bad the A-holes at BP totally screwed up shrimp season for the foreseeable future. Where's the rage?

                                                          1. re: jfood

                                                            We're mad as hell. Our food chain is going to be effected hugely and perhaps forever.

                                                            1. re: jfood

                                                              Well there are good surprises and bad surprises. When several years ago I took June to the snooty Whosis Street Grill in Litchfield, we had salads, appetizers, and then when my rack of lamb arrived I was surprised when the menu had failed to mention that it should have been served with tweezers. After asking for our thrd basket of bread, our waiter's petulant response was "well, we DO serve dessert, sir." Now there's a (high priced) surprise I've never forgotten.

                                            2. Coming from a marketing perspective food photography, well good food photography is expensive. It involves professional level gear, a food stylist and production to print. This is how it is done well. I would assume someone who really cares about their restaurant and takes pride in the dishes they serve isn't going to put DIY low quality shots of their work on their menus. It isn't cost effective. The shots in most Chinese food menus are either stock photos or usually not the best quality.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: blackpointyboots

                                                Sometimes simple is good enoughl.
                                                One day at a weekly Thai food festival I saw a lady taking photos of her food on the back of her truck with a film camera. I offered to take the photos with my digital camera and have them blown up to 8x10 for her.
                                                That was about three years ago and I still see her using the same photos and when she sees me I always get free food.

                                              2. Photographs indicate to me, assembly line food like you find in chain restaurants, cooked by parolees who don't care about the quality of food. It means that the food was pre-made somewhere else and there is no one creating, or caring about what is being served. I eat in chains, don't get me wrong, but photos say factory food.

                                                When a fellow diner complained to our server that the cook had forgotten her Hollandaise Sauce at a chain restaurant, (she could tell it was missing by looking at the picture) she was initially told we're all out. Then the server joyously returned to announce that they'd just found a bag.

                                                Some restaurants pride themselves on their specials which cannot be photographed and printed daily. If unsure about the food simply ask.

                                                1. From my experience, the food pictured on a menu rarely matches what is served. I’d suspect a full-color, photo-laden menu is employed to get your mouth watering and your gastric juices flowing.

                                                  I am a printer and can tell you that full-color printing can be more expensive than one-, or two-color printing. Some of my favorite menus are simply black only, on a nice paper stock. You could call that “Less-is-More Elegance”.

                                                  Your second point follows the above. A regularly changing menu could be expensive to update every two weeks with new visuals, whereas a picture-less menu could be produced same day.

                                                  1. Put me down as one who wants to see a decent representation of the food at an establishment.

                                                    The wait staff gets to see what the dishes they are serving look (and taste) like. Some places will bring out a dessert tray to tempt you into overindulging. How often do you look around at other tables and try to see what looks good?

                                                    And obviously, if it's ethnic or you can't understand the written menu...