All over London, miniature heists are taking place every night. Tiny pieces of art carefully secreted into handbags and backpacks, to be taken home and guiltily displayed.
No, it's not the drawings of Da Vinci in the National Gallery or Hockney's sketches from the Royal Academy that are being pilfered, but restaurant and bar menus. Gone are the days when a menu was a flimsy piece of paper merely conveying an establishment's food and drink offerings—something to read and hand back. Now, they are artworks in their own right, desirable and carefully designed keepsakes.
And whether it's because they're beautifully illustrated or fun or just eminently pocketable, menus from bars and restaurants across the city are increasingly going walkabout.
"The design of the menu is the most fundamental aesthetic aspect of any bar," says Richard Wynne, owner of Shoreditch cocktail bar Callooh Callay. "It's what sets it apart."
Callooh Callay has a reputation for quirky, and swipe-able, menus. Past versions have included the Pantone colour bridge, an Oyster card holder, and a cassette tape. Accepting that people are going to try and take their menus home with them, Wynne turned the pilfering habits of his customers to his advantage. Callooh Callay's current menu is a sticker album, which drinkers are encouraged to take and complete over the course of several visits, collecting the drinks' stickers like you'd collect football cards.
"We want our customers to really feel a part of it and engage beyond looking at a list of drinks and picking their favourite," says Wynne. "The sticker album is an example of how we've almost forced people to try new things, so they can complete the book."
Nightjar, another London cocktail bar, showcases its drinks menu on a pack of playing cards, releasing a new edition and design every year since 2010.
"We always saw our menus as something people would want to take away with them, and show to other people who would then hopefully want to visit the bars," says the bar's co-owner Edmund Weil.
Nightjar sells its playing card menus to try and combat the inevitable theft.
"We sell them as souvenirs," explains Weil. "Luckily, for every person who decides to steal one, there's someone else who has the respect and integrity to pay for it."
But it's not just the quirky menus that get lifted. Dandelyan is another bar providing a take-home version of its menus because they go missing on such a regular basis. Designed by Magpie Studio, the pages are peppered with botanical drawings pimped with neon brights, which illustrate the bar's focus on plants and botany in the way the cocktails are created. Those illustrations also happen to look very pretty in a frame in your flat.
These thieves must have good taste. The third edition of Dandelyan's menu won the award for "World's Best Cocktail Menu" at this year's Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, one of the most highly competitive global drinks contests. Though the judgement is primarily on its contents, the physicality of the menu and its design is also a significant consideration.
"It's very important given the amount of time customers have the menu in their hands," says Zia Zareem-Slade, director of restaurant 45 Jermyn St. "It's an integral part of the whole experience."
Their menus take inspiration from the 19th century dandy Beau Brummel ("A genuine trailblazer and seriously elegant man") and are designed by award-winning illustrator Jonathan Burton. New menus have to be printed at 45 Jermyn St. around every ten days. Of course, some reprints have to happen because of changes to the dishes on offer or general wear and tear, but some go missing purely because they look so lovely.
"Attention to detail is incredibly important to us," Zareen-Slade says. "We wanted everything to be beautiful, tactile, and desirable, which means that light-fingered diners sometimes feel compelled to pocket the menus."
The thieving stretches beyond London. "Moveable restaurant" Xiringuito, which has pitched up in Margate and Liverpool, specially commissioned illustrator John Booth to produce artwork for its menu.
"A striking menu design adds to the dining experience as a whole," says restaurant co-founder Conor Sheehan. "We knew the menus would go 'missing' but that's part of the fun. The idea of someone taking our menu home, seeing it day-to-day, and being reminded of Xiringuito is really nice."
Getting your menus nicked was perhaps, a slightly unforeseen side effect of the growing attention to detail that bars and restaurants are paying to the whole dining experience. Still, the level of demand—whether they're being bought or stolen—has taken some places by surprise.
"Every year we print more packs of cards, and every year we run out a few weeks before the new one drops," says Weil.
Wynne agrees: "The difficult thing for us is working out at what rate people want to take them home. We went through 9,000 Oyster card menus in two months, when we thought they'd last at least five."
But for all their inherent loveliness, creativity, and humour, a menu is still—at the end of the day—a menu. It has to be a clear representation of the food or drink being served.
"Developing cocktails on the level we aspire to takes months of development, ingredient sourcing, costing, and refinement," says Weil. "Not to mention the love care and work that goes into making every single drink on the night."
"We know it's important that the food speaks for itself," says Zareen-Slade. "And to make sure we let the incredible ingredients and the chefs' creativity shine. Obviously the most important thing is that the menu informs and tantalises, but it also reflects the personality of the place. When someone takes a menu home, we don't mind. It means we've done our jobs."
So, don't feel too bad if you slip a beautiful menu into your bag and slink away with it as a cheeky souvenir. If it means you've had a good night, then really, the menu is just the icing on the cake.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.