Restaurant menu

Everyday Cheapskate: The Ultimate Restaurant Menu Cheat Sheet


A restaurant menu doesn’t matter, does it? It is just a list of food products that a restaurant offers to its customers. Of course it is. And much more.

Before menus hit the printers, restaurateurs hire engineers and menu consultants to bury super-sneaky psychological tricks in the pretty pictures and enticing descriptions for one reason: to make you spend more money.

Want to beat restaurants at their own game? Here’s your cheat sheet of the sneakiest tricks.


Sophisticated research tells restaurants to stop including dollar signs on their menus because a dollar sign — or even the word “dollar” spelled out instead — triggers negative feelings associated with payment. The sign and the word remind customers that they are spending money. (Well, imagine that!)


Further research has revealed to restaurateurs that beautifully written descriptions of food choices appeal to unsuspecting diners. And these descriptive menu labels, in one impressive study, increased sales by 27%, compared to food items without fabulously written descriptions.

Here’s an example: instead of just listing the menu “Crab Cakes”, name them “Handmade Maryland-style Crab Cakes, with sweetened jumbo crabmeat, a touch of mayonnaise, our secret blend of seasonings and golden cracker crumbs for a rich, tender taste,” a customer can’t help but get a sensory experience just by reading the description. This kind of flowery language gives customers satisfaction that inspires them to order, without worrying too much about what it will cost.

But wait. There is more. If the menu description includes a brand name or two, like Jack Daniel’s Sauce or Duke’s Mayonnaise, sales should magically increase.


Oh, that’s really sneaky! Research assures menu designers that when they can incorporate the thought of a beloved family member, bam! – Sales are soaring. Recognize the trick when you see Grandma’s famous meatloaf on a menu or Aunt Millie’s Apple Cobbler.


This is very common in ethnic restaurants. Instead of an Italian restaurant offering lasagna, for example, if the name is expanded to include a region or region of Italy, we assume a better result. Hey, it’s “Authentic Northern Italian Lasagna”, which of course is worth at least a few dollars more.


When menu items are bold, printed in a different color, or enhanced with images, fancy fonts, photos, or – the biggest – isolated in a separate box, they appear to be much more special than the other cheeky items that are part of a boring list on the other side of the menu. If the “All-Star Perfect All-Beef Burger” gets its own box and color imprint, it must be well worth the $12.95 price tag. Ha! That’s why they work so hard to convince you.


No kidding, that’s what the lure experts call them to manipulate you into doing their bidding. Here’s how it works:

No kidding, that’s what they’re called by the experts – decoys to manipulate you into doing their bidding. Here’s how it works: you sit down, open the menu, and lock your eyeballs with the $11.95 patty melt, no description. Just a patty melt for $12. You’re making fun. Ha! Not me. Then your eyes wander to the boxed item with a picture of the world’s most perfect burger (titled accordingly) that makes your mouth water. And it’s $16.95 with fries and Jack Daniel’s dip.

Certainly not! You know what they are doing here. You make your decision. It will be the melting pancake, no fries no sauce. And you’re not smart? Well, not so fast, buckaroo. You just played into their hands and they laugh all the way to the bank! This burger that no one ever orders is a decoy. Priced at $17, it’s so ridiculous that customers laugh in silence and then have no problem with a slushy $12 patty.


They are called scanpaths, which define the way most people focus their eyes and the path they take when reading a menu. Menu engineering takes full advantage of our way of thinking.

Statistically, they know that we will order the first item that catches our eye when the menu opens. We could read the whole thing, but it’s that #1 element that’s so important to restaurant results.

This is why restaurants place the most profitable items in the upper right corner. This is where the customer’s eyes go first. Beyond that, they know we’re more likely to remember items better at the beginning of a list. So if we first lay eyes on a list, it’s the first thing on that list that we’re most likely to order. And guess what they choose to put there? You got it!

There you have it, your restaurant menu cheat sheet with all the tricks you need to know to beat restaurants at their own game.

When you notice these tricks, focus on them momentarily. Then go rogue by making up your own mind without feeling manipulated into buying expensive pie crust or crab cakes, uh…I mean the delicious Maryland style crab cakes.

Marie invites you to visit her at, where this column is archived with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions and comments to, “Ask Mary.” This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.coma frugal living blog and the author of the book “Debt-Proof Living”.


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