Emoji Menus

Fine-dining restaurant Dallas Fish Market recently held a $65-per-person dinner event, but it wasn’t the watermelon lobster or sesame-seed ice creams that were the main hit. It was a menu written entirely in emojis.

The upscale seafood joint got its inspiration when Nafees Alam, CEO of DRG Concepts, who owns the restaurant, came across an ice cream shop in Singapore with an emoji menu. Clearly it was a good idea to take the concept Stateside, as Dallas Fish Market sold out of its first “emoji dinner” event and has a second one coming up in about a week. The event menus have no text or photos, just emojis of the available food items. Guests are encouraged to correctly match the dish they’re eating to the corresponding emoji. There are bound to be surprises, since we don’t yet have icons for ingredients like saffron or truffle oil.

It sounds like an entertaining evening packed with laughs, but actually, there are some practical business reasons for incorporating emoji menus into a restaurant strategy.

For one, it’s a new way of using technology to interact with diners and create extra buzz. London restaurant The Little Yellow Door has regular emoji menu dinners, calling the concept “a cool way to engage with our audience.” Diners have to guess what’s on the menu before choosing a dish and ordering it via WhatsApp. Dallas Fish Market, meanwhile, noted an uptick in attention on social media thanks to all the photos and mentions guests posted on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And over in Bankok, Thailand, Gaggan has only emojis on its 20-plus-course menu. It’s also been voted “Asia’s Best Restaurant” for three straight years. Presumably, Gaggan’s creative take on Indian food has a lot to do with that award, but pairing unusual dishes with an unusual menu is a great example of how a simple technology like emojis can be used to further enhance the restaurant experience.

And you don’t have to serve a 22-course meal to do that. Domino’s Pizza is using emoji-based menus to streamline the order process, with its Domino’s AnyWare program. Save your basic info and preferences, text the pizza slice emoji to Domino’s, and wait for your pie to be delivered. Pizza Hut has tested something similar. Fooji, meanwhile, takes this idea step further: tweet the company a food emoji, and, using algorithms, they’ll pick a meal from a top-rated restaurant and have it delivered to you.

Of course this all sounds like a blast when you’re just talking about it, but emoji menus, for all their practical uses, also have some practical hurdles to jump in order to get more popular. How difficult a concept will this be for the local deli or noodle bar to implement? What happens if you order a salad and it comes unexpectedly doused in truffle oil? As Foodji founder Gregg Morton told Eater last year, “It really is food roulette.” And not everyone wants to play food roulette for lunch.

There’s also the matter of dietary restrictions. At present, anyone with health- or religious-based food restrictions would be hard-pressed to find something to eat via emoji menus. But that alone could create a whole new world of business, for restaurants, researchers, and app makers alike. I’m not yet convinced emoji-based menus will go mainstream anytime soon, but we’re likely to see them incorporated into some very creative food concepts in the near future.