Printed menus are back

Those QR code menus that we all either got to experience or had to put up with (as one sees it) from the pandemic are on their way out.

Like many ambitious restaurants around town, the newly opened Pastore leaves no detail unturned: Customers are handed cold towels that chill in a fridge set precisely at 40 degrees, white tablecloths are pressed just-so and the head chef sources free-range chicken from an artisanal meat purveyor to make his sausage-filled ravioli.

The QR-code menu, that pixelated black-and-white matrix once a fixture during the pandemic, never had a chance at Pastore.

“It made sense to have QR codes during the COVID years,” said Nina Quincy, the president of Underbelly Hospitality, the company behind the seafood-leaning Italian restaurant in Regent Square. “But I think menus are a really important part of the dining experience. You hold it in your hands, so it involves all the senses.”

The contact-less QR codes looked like the future of dining when they served as a cost-savings measure and public health precaution. But today, many Houston restaurants are ditching digital menus in favor of old-school paper menus — sometimes spending thousands of dollars on custom-designed stationery, leather-bound books and even personalized memos for diners to take home.

The use of QR-code scans dropped 27 percent in the U.S. in April and May when compared to the same period in 2021, according to MustHaveMenus, a platform providing menu management and printing services to the hospitality industry.

QR codes are still prevalent, especially at more casual establishments, but the biggest reason, say restaurant owners and operators, is that people simply got tired of them and wanted paper menus. In other words, it took the joy out of dining.

“People will pick up the phone when given any reason, but if it’s a paper menu, maybe they’ll leave it in their pocket or bag,” Quincy said.


The QR-code menu isn’t completely dead, however, said Devin Handler, the vice president of marketing of Denver-based Tag Restaurant Group, which counts Guard & Grace among its four concepts.

The group’s more casual restaurants rely on QR codes, which Handler said allows customers to order quickly and find other types of information like why a service fee is included or catering services that would look too messy on a paper menu. Restaurants also can update their digital menus more quickly without having to print new ones.

“The paper menu feels like we curated it for you,” said Handler, who oversees all the Tag restaurant menu designs. “But the QR codes are more flexible. I think the future is a blend.”

That sounds about right to me. I’m more of a casual-dining, counter service kind of guy, where a single menu on the wall and/or some laminated ones where you order are sufficient. I don’t mind a QR code menu but some restaurants did them better than others – some of them were clearly optimized for iPhones and not Androids – and there’s nothing more frustrating than such a menu that needs to be greatly enlarged to be readable with only a tiny portion of the menu on the screen at a time as a result. I’m sure the user experience wasn’t that high on the priority list three years ago when these things first came into common use, but it’s 2023 now, we can do better. Or we can go back to the old analog ways, that’s fine too. What do you think about this?

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