Picture this: You step into a bar and sit on one of the high stools by the counter. You’re ready to hear the bartender rattle off details about their approach, methods and signature drinks, but instead you’re handed a Rubik’s cube. “This is the menu,” you’re told.
Though the traditional paper menu is not disappearing (despite QR codes’ best efforts), bars are now betting on a new kind of format. Sometimes 3D, often interactive, the new bar menu is more in line with the kinds of conceptual cocktails that modern bars are creating. Presentation matters—as seen in the rise of eye-catching foams and elaborate edible garnishes—and if we drink with our eyes first, it’s only logical that the look of a menu would impact our experience of the drink before it even arrives.
Of course, the themed menu is not new, but the presentations have only gotten more immersive. And it’s not just a gimmick: For some bars, an experimental menu is a way to bring the guest into the process of making the cocktail, offering a highly personalized experience. At Bijou, in Mexico City, the aforementioned Rubik’s cube offers different characteristics (like “herbal” or “bubbly”) as well as different spirits. How you “solve” the cube dictates how bartenders will adapt a recipe. Meanwhile, at Rayo, also in Mexico City, the drinks themselves serve as a menu. Bartenders place numbered small glass bottles—each filled with a sample of the bar’s 10 drinks—in front of guests, who taste them before deciding what to order. For those who tend to order the same style of drink or the same base spirit, it encourages a process of discovery, rather than a reliance on old standbys.
@monicagomezxo ????BIJOU – this speakeasy has only been open for 2 weeks and its very similar to Handshake! Service was 10/10 and I loved all of the sweeter cocktails! ???? perfect for a date night in Condesa after having dinner at La Capital! ???? #cdmx #mexicocity #ciudaddemexico #cdmxlife #cdmxtiktok #speakeasy #speakeasybar ♬ Speed Trap – theLMNOP
Other menus serve as a tactile conversation starter. At Anthill, a cocktail and tapas bar located on the top floor of Gallerie d’Italia in Naples, the menu comes in a medicine box. The list—created by head bartender Anna Garruti to spotlight classic drinks and signature cocktails related to Neapolitan culture—comes inside the box, printed like the information leaflet that would come in a package of Tachipirina, a local over-the-counter painkiller. The “pills” inside are mints that guests can take home. “We wanted to make a parody of something familiar to everyone, taking it out of the context people know,” says chef and owner Giuseppe Iannotti.
Sometimes, the classic paper menu has a few tricks up its sleeve, too. At Gold Bar in Tokyo, bar director Hideyuki Saito and his team developed a conceptual menu, named Two Faces. Each cocktail was designed to highlight the duality of life, with every drink theme complemented by its opposite—light and dark, for example, or strength and weakness. Half of the drinks have their names and descriptions printed in regular ink, and their counterparts can be seen when guests shine a black light over the menu.
For example, the menu lists Sa Sa Salsa Claro, a spicy cocktail made with tequila, habanero, golden tomato water and citrus and, once the black light illuminates the page, it reveals the Koke Koke Club, which comprises a refreshing mix of sake, herbal tea, coconut water and citrus. It’s a clever design that adds an extra dimension to the bargoer’s experience.
“Innovation on menus is getting more and more attention,” says Saito. According to him, it was only a matter of time before menus became as elevated as the drinks on them. “The menu is the ticket to take guests on their journey,” he says.