Most of us would be familiar with ordering food online from takeaway or fastfood places where the menu is integrated into the ordering form or app. When I recently visited a few restaurant websites with quite modern designs I was quite surprised that many still use links to PDF documents rather than display the contents of the menu on the website.

From a business perspective I guess it is a way to prevent people from scraping data from the website or comparing prices and there might be some benefits. From a user perspective I was wondering if it is to the benefit of the user to have PDF files and not website content.

  • 1
    FWIW, depending on the type of PDF (if it's a scanned image or actual written content) you CAN scrape them: memeburn.com/2013/11/…
    – DasBeasto
    Mar 30, 2016 at 16:37
  • I will post a menu to website, also have the downloadable PDF version.
    – YogaPanda
    Mar 30, 2016 at 20:44

8 Answers 8


Adobe tries to overcome some of the shortcomings of PDF compared to HTML+CSS (both may contain JS) while maintaining its two main advantages: same static design wherever possible in a single file. Both can also be considered disadvantages sometimes.

From a website user perspective, a HTML+CSS(+JS) menu has several advantages. Some of them could be done in PDF, too, but most generators don’t support them (easily). An online menu is integrated into the site, i.e. the user doesn’t have to switch from browser to document viewer app and with seamless design the menu feels just like any other part of the site, hence will have a navigation entry and semi-automatically adapt to the viewport size. An online menu can also be interactive, i.e. users may sort (e.g. by price, meat, course, size), filter (e.g. for vegetarian, alcohol/dairy/gluten, special offer, children menu) and search the entries. Visitors can also use assistive technology like screenreaders, magnifiers, translators and currency converters. Paper and PDF are bad at providing videos or dynamically enlarged pictures.

If the website menu already contains an order form, it may be easily possible to code a tablet app in the future which would replace paper menus. The data can also be reused for electronic billboards – many fast food places now have large TV screens atop the counter listing menu options and prices, which enables quick, simple, unnoticable and even frequent entry and price changes (e.g. lunch-time specials and seasonal offerings).

If the print menu and the website are generated from a single source, which might also connect to whatever program the restaurant manager uses for accounting, then there’s hardly any reason to put the PDF on the web, at least neither as only nor as default option. This assumes the same persons edit the backend of website and print menu.

In conclusion and from a UX perspective (on both, frontend and backend), restaurant menus should be normal database-driven webpages.

PS: I have seen guests in restaurants use their phones to look at the online menu instead of the printed one lying on their table, just because of the mentioned benefits, and in South-East Asia waiters have handed me a tablet pointed to the restaurant’s website, because the print menus were only available in the local script and without pictures.

  • +1 very good points made in your answer, with good examples as well!
    – Michael Lai
    Mar 31, 2016 at 21:30
  • In terms of the business argument about costs of implementation and maintenance, do you think there is still a valid reason there?
    – Michael Lai
    Mar 31, 2016 at 21:32

I think they do it because it's easier and cheaper to implement a PDF menu more than an online menu.

  • Features such as downloading, printing, zooming are already built into the web browser.
  • If the PDF menu is the same as the one they're going to have printed then they're killing two birds with one stone.
  • Updating the content is a matter of just uploading the new file.
  • Clients might not want to pay more to implement an online menu when there is a cheaper alternative.

From a user's perceptive a PDF menu is not convenient.

  • Depending on how heavy the PDF content is, it takes a longer time to load.
  • You can't easily navigate or search for an item you want (less control).

Personally I would like to see the menu on their site: categorised, with images, prices and other useful information.

But coming from a country where internet is not freely available everywhere you go - if it's a restaurant I order from frequently - I would like to download and keep their menu as well to refer whenever I want. Preferably in a format which can be opened on any device.

  • Is it not common for a template to be designed for the menu, since many websites have a built-in CMS behind it (like Wordpress and Drupal)?
    – Michael Lai
    Mar 30, 2016 at 21:10
  • @MichaelLai Yes. But adding a link to view a PDF is much cheaper than an online menu. On a CMS a dev will have to categorize and add the content. The client will have to provide images which they may or may not have. And those images might need resizing or editing before being uploaded. All of these are costs the client will have to bare (time and money). Ultimately a PDF menu and an online menu will give the same information. One option costs more than the other. Although an online menu is more user centric, a client who is concerned about the costs will go for the cheaper option.
    – nuwa
    Mar 31, 2016 at 6:34

Mostly, the main reason why many restaurants uses PDF menu is because they already have commissioned a printed menu for dine-in patrons. This printed menu is often authored in PDF for printing, so they already had a PDF menu on hand. When the restaurant managed to figure out ways to create a restaurant website, it's just easiest to upload the file you already had rather than to recreate it as HTML menu.

It's mainly a cost benefit analysis. Yes, PDF menu is a bit clunky on a website, but why spend the extra money on developing and maintaining multiple menus in different formats when you can just upload the PDF menu you already had?

Developing an online ordering app is not cheap either, so many restaurants only take phone order or just provide a simple free text contact order form, even if they had a website with online menus.

I don't think preventing scraping and price shopping is an issue most restaurants had in mind at all. Except at large fast-food franchises, restaurants food isn't really a commodity item; just because the same menu item in one place is 50 cents cheaper than the one next shop doesn't really affect my decision very much on whether to eat in a place.


From a couple of clients that do this to this day: they say they don't want to pay someone to do a menu every week or month, and they like to change things as needed in a fast way, so they simply use PDF authoring software to create menus . One of my clients uses OpenOffice Writer Save to PDF option!

Efforts to create automated menu creation (as a matter of fact, to USE them, because I did create the system) were useless, both of them were reluctant to change and were happy with the way they were (and are) doing things. So this seems to be more a question of locus of control than a decision based on rational thinking or technology availability .

On addition to this, once we made a WP based system to create restaurant sites, one of the questions of the client was this: "Can we add a button to upload a menu on PDF?". In this case the menu creation system was created and approved, yet this person wanted this feature just in case, so it seems to be something widespread on that particular line of business

PS: I also think Lie Ryan's answer could be another probable reason


If I were the designer, I would put both options. It is important to let user see your menu right the way, but PDF might have a nice design or layout. Some people may need to print it out the menu. Can not think why they only use PDF.

  • For websites that are well designed, there are usually print options that will allow the user to print in a suitable format. I am just struggling to think why it is needed even for printing purposes from a user's point of view, although from the perspective of business owners it might be different.
    – Michael Lai
    Mar 11, 2016 at 0:46
  • If I were the designer, I would understand the business needs and the user needs. It's trivial to see the business needs that lead to the the restaurant only using PDF. Anyone can create a PDF. Not everyone can update a website. The menu changes, the rest of the site probably does not. The website can be developed, and the restaurant owner can be given relatively simple instructions for creating a PDF and uploading it to their site.
    – nadyne
    Mar 11, 2016 at 18:48
  • @nadyne: with a CMS and rich text editor, editing a static HTML menu shouldn't be any more difficult for non technical users than creating PDF on Word. With previews and automatic revision control, the user can do any changes safely, knowing that if they mess up, they can just roll back to an older revision. More sophisticated, interactive menu though, probably should best be left to a proper web developer. While it may be possible for non technical users to edit interactive menus with a custom menu editor, it is usually not worth it to implement such menu editor.
    – Lie Ryan
    Mar 30, 2016 at 15:58
  • @Lie: Does a restaurant website really need a CMS? Is anyone at the restaurant using a rich text editor that isn't Word? What is the additional cost of creating and maintaining a mostly-static site with a CMS over and above the cost of a mostly-static site with an easy PDF upload option? I agree that it's certainly possible to do so; I question whether the additional cost and learning curve associated with it is going to be a cost that the business sees any reason at all to bear.
    – nadyne
    Mar 30, 2016 at 22:46
  • @nadyne: there are different opinions regarding CMS, but when I used to work in creating small-and medium-business websites, we've always used a CMS even for mostly static websites. The CMS isn't necessarily intended to be used by the non-technical client, it's just often much easier for me, the web developer, to author the site's content using a CMS than writing it all in code code. We'd only skip the CMS when developing an application, which are mostly custom code implementing business logic; but we often still have a CMS on the side, as there are usually still a number of static pages.
    – Lie Ryan
    Apr 1, 2016 at 14:39

I've worked at a startup that has a marketplace model with restaurants on the merchant side. What I discovered was that there's a wide variety of menus and menu options among restaurants. Some restaurants would offer a half-n-half pizza option, whereas others would offer a banquet deal or something similarly unique.

Wordpress and other template developers know this diversity exists, and developing a database backed solution is not trivial. So a large percentage of them just offer PDF menu uploads.

This is also one of the reasons why food ordering sites exist. They have catered for various menu options and variations, and provide a single interface to order food.

Most restaurateurs consider websites as an advertising medium. They have limited budgets for websites, which leads developers to produce the simplest solution out there.


From experience: In google anaytics, we noticed that the users stops at page 2 of the dishes and wasn't able to navigate all our dishes. We came with a conclusion, that the users wanted to see a big picture of what the restaurant offers more than each dish the restaurant offers. So what we did is we changed the individual images to an image like the restaurant menu. I guess it did deliver a better result for the restaurant.

I think the best user experience is based on what really works for the user and for the business.


It was briefly mentioned but never expounded upon in any detail why the PDF files are so prevalent for restaurant websites rather than having an HTML version of the menu.

No, it's not because of scraping or some business reason (menus are public domain by law, whenever they are posted publicly), but as already mentioned, is because when you commission a restaurant menu, it is done in a format that is not web-native, and so you end up with a source file that is in Photoshop, Illustrator, Word, PowerPoint (yes, really), or some other non-web-native formats. You can't simply post that online.

What hasn't been touched upon is what do you do if you want a menu for your restaurant tables as well as your website, and so you have to consider having your menu in a web-native format that allows:

  1. All the complexity of designing a menu
  2. High resolution printing capable
  3. Ability to download PDF plus embed in a website

There is really only one technology that does this currently and I would welcome to learn of any others that have these capabilities, but I've not found any at the time of writing. You can see the results of what an embedded menu would look like here https://menugo.com/Shared

The menus can be downloaded as PDF, or just linked to your site and automatically synced using Javascript, like this:

<script id="menugo-share-script" src="https://menugo.com/js/embed.js?token=koLHB5cz"></script>

In this way, you have a menu you can manage in one place that looks great in both places, plus is web friendly.

  • +1 Not sure why you got a downvote, but I thought your answer was good from ta technology point of view, and perhaps it needed to relate back to the overall user experience too. But thanks for your contribution to UXSE!
    – Michael Lai
    Oct 11, 2018 at 6:31

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