Restaurant menu

Restaurant Menu Psychology: Tips to Make Us Order More

From wine-appropriate music to authentic foreign names, restaurateurs have plenty of ways to persuade diners to order highly profitable meals.

It’s not always easy trying to read a menu while hungry as a wolf, floundering after a drink and exchanging pleasantries with a table partner. Eyes flit like a pinball machine, flickering between meal options, side dishes, and daily specials. Do I want comforting treats or something healthy? What is cheap? Will I end up bitterly coveting my companion’s dinner? Is it immoral to dwell on such petty first-world dilemmas? Oh my God, the waiter is coming.

Why is it so hard to decide what to have? New research from Bournemouth University shows that most menus contain far more dishes than people want to choose from. And when it comes to choosing food and drink, as an influential psychophysicist named Howard Moskowitz once said, “The mind doesn’t know what the tongue wants.

Malcolm Gladwell cites an interesting nugget from his work for Nescafé. When asked what kind of coffee they like, most Americans will answer, “dark, rich, hearty coffee.” But in reality, only 25 to 27% want it. Most prefer light, milky coffee. Judgment is clouded by aspirations, peer pressure and marketing messages.

The burden of choice

Maybe that’s part of the joy of a tasting or set menu – the disempowerment. And perhaps the recent trend of tapas-style sharing plates has been so popular because it relieves the pressure of decision-making if all your eggs aren’t in one basket. Is there a perfect amount of choice?

The new study from Bournemouth University sought to answer that question. “We were trying to establish the ideal number of starters, mains and puddings on a menu,” says Professor John Edwards. The results of the study show that restaurant patrons of all ages and genders have an optimal number of menu items, below which they feel there is too little choice and above which everything becomes disconcerting. In fast food restaurants, people wanted six items per category (appetizers, chicken, fish, vegetarian and pasta dishes, grills and classic meats, steaks and burgers, desserts), while in fine dining establishments, they preferred seven starters and desserts, and 10 main courses, thank you very much.

Nightmarish menu layouts

The confusing menu design doesn’t help. A few years ago, author William Poundstone rather brilliantly annotated the menu at Balthazar in New York to reveal the marketing bells and whistles he uses to entice customers to part with the maximum amount of cash. Professor Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design, Mindless Eating Solutions to Every Day Life, has done extensive research on the psychology of menus or as he puts it, menu engineering. “What ends up getting attention,” he says, “has an unfair advantage over anything a person sees later.” There’s some debate about how people’s eyes naturally move around menus, but Wansink believes that “we usually scan the menu in a z-shape starting from the top left corner.” Regardless of the pattern, however, we are easily interrupted by items placed in boxes, next to images or icons, in bold or in a different color.

The language of food

Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence has an upcoming review article on the effect a dish’s name has on diners. “Give it an ethnic tag,” he says, “like an Italian name, and people will call the food more authentic.” Add an evocative description and people will comment much more positively on a dish’s appeal and taste. “A label directs a person’s attention to a feature of a dish, and therefore helps bring out certain flavors and textures,” he says.

But we are witnessing a backlash against the clichés of the menu (watered, homemade, infused) resulting from this reflection. For some time now, at Fergus Henderson’s famous restaurant, St John, they’ve been letting the ingredients speak for themselves, in simple lists. And if you eat at one of Russell Norman’s Polpo Group restaurants in London, you’ll see almost no adjectives (or boxes and other “flim-flam”, as he calls it), and he makes a roaring trade. “I’m particularly antipathetic to flowery descriptions,” he says.

However, Norman’s menus use their own subtle techniques to entice diners. Take the menu from its flagship restaurant Polpo. The Venetian dishes are printed on Italian butcher paper, which goes with the aged and rough aspect of the place. I don’t use much Italian,” he says, “but I do use it occasionally for customers to say ‘what’s that?'” He chooses an easy-to-pronounce word like suppli ( rice balls), to start a conversation between the diner and the waiter.

Sound and atmosphere

Research has shown that classical music increases sales of expensive wines and overall spending in fancy restaurants, while French and German music increases sales of French and German wines, respectively (dinners are unaware of these influences) . Slow music and lavender scent make people spend more time in restaurants, and 70-90dB pop music will increase carbonated drink consumption. And, perhaps less surprisingly, in 1997 Edwards found that diners ate more at the breakfast buffet if the room smelled of grilled bacon, and less with the smell of boiled cabbage wafting around.

Everything is relative, right? In his exercise in deconstructing the menu, Poundstone points to the £70 Le Balthazar seafood platter as the price anchor. “By placing high profit items next to the extremely expensive anchor, they look cheap in comparison.” So what the restaurant wants you to get is the £43 Le Grand plate to the left of that. It’s a similar story with wine. We will invariably opt for the second cheapest. The menus, or ‘packages’, on the other hand, seem to be good value for money and therefore give us an excuse to eat and spend more. Everyone wins.

Extensive menus make me particularly nervous in, say, gastropubs, where they scream, “FRESH FROM THE DEEP FREEZE.” And Norman finds any mention of “chef’s special sauce” off-putting (don’t ask). What’s on the menu that cuts your appetite? And how do you decide what to order? Gut instinct, methodically weighing the pros and cons, weeding out items with unwanted ingredients? Or do you still take the burger?

Menu layout and descriptions are often designed to entice customers to buy high-grossing items. Photography: Rex Features

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