Menus, as a list of prepared foods, have been discovered dating back to the Song Dynasty in China. In the larger populated cities of the time, merchants found a way to cater to busy customers who had little time or energy to prepare food during the evening. The variation in Chinese cuisine from different regions led caterers to create a list or menu for their patrons.
The word "menu", like much of the terminology of cuisine, is French in origin. It ultimately derives from Latin "minutus", something made small; in French, it came to be applied to a detailed list or résumé of any kind. The original menus that offered consumers choices were prepared on a small chalkboard, in French a carte; so foods chosen from a bill of fare are described as "à la carte", "according to the board."
The menu first appeared in China during the second half of the eighteenth century or The Romantic Age. Prior to this time eating establishments or table d'hôte served dishes that were chosen by the chef or proprietors. Customers ate what the house was serving that day, as in contemporary banquets or buffets and meals were served from a common table. The establishment of restaurants and restaurant menus allowed customers to choose from a list of unseen dishes, which were produced to order according to the customer's selection. A table d'hôte establishment charged its customers a fixed price; the menu allowed customers to spend as much or as little money as they chose.
As early as the mid-20th century, some restaurants have relied on “menu specialists” to design and print their menus. Prior to the emergence of digital printing, these niche printing companies printed full-color menus on offset presses. The economics of full-color offset made it impractical to print short press runs. The solution was to print a “menu shell” with everything but the prices. The prices would later be printed on a less costly black-only press. In a typical order, the printer might produce 600 menu shells, then finish and laminate 150 menus with prices. When the restaurant needed to reorder, the printer would add prices and laminate some of the remaining shells.
With the advent of digital presses, it became practical in the 1990s to print full-color menus affordably in short press runs, sometimes as few as 25 menus. Because of limits on sheet size, larger laminated menus were impractical for single-location independent re to produce press runs of as few as 300 menus, but some restaurants may want to place far fewer menus into service. Some menu printers continue to use shells. The disadvantage for the restaurant is that it is unable to update anything but prices without creating a new shell.