To The Point: Menu Writing and Capitalization

Often, I’m asked to proofread a menu. When this occurs, inevitably a few questions arise from the client, and they mainly regard capitalization.

  1. What are the capitalization rules on menus?
  2. Should you capitalize… [fill in the blank for a whole list of words: french fries, bloody mary, cheeses, meats, cocktails...]

So I have four guidelines* I use when writing or proofing menus. *I say guidelines because, as you are about to see, menu writing can get tricky.

 

Guideline #1 – Be Consistent

This is really the most important rule. Menus can defy ‘proper’ grammar and style rules, take on a personality of their own, or purposefully play with punctuation, spelling, and design – but whatever system you decide to use, whatever guidelines you do decide to follow – stick with them throughout the entire menu. Inconsistencies stand out like an overused cliché.

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Guideline #2 – Capitalize the Bolded Dish Names

On a menu, a dish name can be thought of the equivalent of a header in a memo or document. You can capitalize the name of a dish, as long as you capitalize all the names consistently.

 

Guideline #3 – Use Regular Capitalization Rules, Unless You Don’t

Here’s where it gets tricky. Let’s start with the easy ones. With anything that doesn’t contain a proper noun, follow normal rules of capitalization. Even for cocktails. Examples: mimosa, mojito, grasshopper, taco, soup.

Capitalize food when it is derived from specific locations in the world or named after specific people. Okay, but wait. Let’s examine this closer. Cheese always comes up. I always capitalize cheese if it comes from a certain place. Such as Swiss, Brie, Munster, American. Simple, right? But then when it comes to meats, I don’t capitalize meats, because the name is now known as the name of the cut: frankfurt, hamburger, wiener.

So far, so good. But now comes the tricky part. Some cocktails have names originally derived from locations, but are now not what we call a “literal use of the proper noun.” This means that we don’t really associate them with the locations anymore. Examples: manhattan, daiquiri, irish coffee. Same rationale for margarita: even though Margarita is a name, we don’t capitalize the drink because it’s long since lost its association with the name. What about a bloody mary*? The AP Style Guide (which is my go-to guide) recommends not capitalizing it for the same reason.

From Zach Klein’s Flickr photostream

Still with me? This leads me to my favorite: french fries. The “french” here possibly refers to the type of cut, but almost definitely adheres to the “lost its original association” category – which is why I do not capitalize it. (Though some days it seems as if everyone else who writes the first drafts of the menus I see, does.)

*Okay, so on these same lines I would really like to not capitalize caesar salad if I had my way. (1) Because this salad is not, as many assume, named after the Roman emperor and (2) if poor Bloody Mary loses her capitalization privileges because of lost association**, I would hope this stands true here, since people don’t even recall the guy who this salad is named after! But alas, when I try to correct this, general outcry (far greater than you might imagine) occurs.

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**Cocktails such as Tom Collins, Jim Beam, or Shirley Temple, still get capitalized. Perhaps there’s a statute of limitations on how long you have to be dead before you lose your capitalization privileges. But that’s another blog entirely.

 

Guideline #4 – Lowercase in the Food Descriptions

In food descriptions, I tend to lean towards keeping as much in lowercase as possible. Some exceptions to this would be if the food does use a proper noun as discussed in Rule #3 (Peking duck, Omaha beef) or it’s a brand (Nestle or Hershey) or it’s a special name your Chef has created (Bob’s Butter Shrimp).

While the rules for writing menus and writing food may be flexible and contentious, as long as you decide on what you are going to do and stick with that rule, you will be fine. Pick a style book you like and use that as your guide. If you want the least confusing, I suggest the Chicago Manual of Style, because it basically suggests lowercase for everything. I use the AP Style Guide because of my days in journalism. If you choose to use a dictionary, just remember David Foster Wallace’s great essay on such reference books: they might not be as objective as you think they are.

I leave you with that, as I believe we’ve spent quite enough time discussing menus. Have any comments? Leave them in the comments section!

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