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Dining Dissection: How to Decode Restaurant Menus

Do you ever find your eyes drawn to a particular dish on a menu before you have even managed to take in the full description?

You may be surprised to hear that restaurants invest significant time and expense in understanding the psychology of their customers then tailoring their menu so that you are predisposed towards particular profit pumping options. After years of fascination with techniques employed by crafty restaurateurs, I analysed a medley of menus and called on the wisdom of renowned restaurant consultant, Juliet Shield, to decode the mystery.

Sweet Spots

Research has shown that consumers will rarely read and fully digest an entire menu. Instead, we tend to scan the menu in a ‘Z’ shape and are most likely to choose the first or last items listed. The pole position for maximum popularity is the top right hand corner, known in the industry as ‘the sweet spot’.

Stars, Workhouses and Puzzles

There’s a whole vocabulary used by menu engineers to describe dishes of profitability and popularity on menus. Restaurants will clearly want to push the items that they can make the highest profit on (i.e. low cost ingredients and a medium to high sale price). Juliet explained that the success of many Italian restaurants stems from the inexpensive ingredients that most of the dishes rely on – even if you are using the finest pasta flour you only need to mix it with a few additional low cost ingredients for bestselling pasta and pizza favourites.

When a highly profitable item is also highly popular, it’s known as a star. However, restaurants are under pressure to produce popular low profit dishes (known as workhorses) and will need to encourage staff to think of inventive ways to sell items that have low popularity but are highly profitable (known as puzzles).

Price Play

When perusing a menu, it’s impossible not to be influenced by the price tag attached to each item. There will always be a particularly decadent dish with a cost to make you baulk, but this is actually a tactic used by restaurants to give you a price anchor to contrast other dishes against.

Generally, customers will not choose the least or most expensive dishes, but feel comfortable somewhere in the middle – instinctively we avoid the extremes. For the same reason, a large proportion of diners choose the second wine down on the list and not the £20 house wine or the £48 Chateauneuf du Pape. To make your price comparison more difficult, some restaurants choose to scatter prices so that you are more inclined to choose what you genuinely want (often at a cost) rather than choosing frugally.

Juliet highlighted that customers will inevitably benchmark restaurant prices by comparing two like-for-like items such as an espresso or standard dessert. If a restaurant wants to be seen as good value for money, it may keep the price of these readily comparable items low despite other menu items being more expensive.

Another pricing technique to look out for is restaurants omitting the pound sign, as on Grain Store’s menu. This immediately softens the blow by detracting from the cost and focusing your attention on the descriptions.

Share The Love

I have noticed a surge in ‘small plates’ menus across London, for example the ever-popular Polpo. Customers love being able to try a little of every dish – there’s no food envy and many find sharing reminiscent of family meal times. Juliet noted that when presented with this option, we are likely to order more, as each dish is modestly priced and we rarely add up the cost of all dishes before ordering, so while a main course at £22 would seem expensive you would happily share six small plates at £7-8 each between two.

Dishes for two immediately appeal to diners hoping for a romantic evening. On a dinner date you are less likely to be thinking so carefully about cost, and prices advertised ‘per person’ seem more appealing than those that have been doubled and then advertised to share. A good example of this is Bob Bob Ricard’s beef wellington for two, listed at £44.50 per person rather than the eye-watering £89 the dish actually costs as a whole.

Fonts, Pictures and Boxing

An obvious but effective technique is the creative use of fonts, pictures and boxing. Colourful text immediately draws your attention, as does a striking box placed around a particular item.

An interesting recent trend is the use of typewriter fonts. These are used not only for nostalgic effect but also where a restaurant wants to show that its descriptions are honest and need no adornments. For example, the font used on the Mishkins menu is a perfect reflection of the restaurant’s Jewish comfort food – it’s genuine and needs no explanations.

Eye-catching illustrations immediately tempt customers while giving a restaurant a valuable opportunity to reflect its brand identity. Quo Vadis’ menu is a great example of this and the menu reflects the beautifully illustrated website and hints at the personalities of the trio behind the establishment. At Balthazar, luxuriant artwork is used alongside the coveted seafood platter that appears in the top right hand corner ‘sweet spot’.

Menu Trends

Many restaurants choose to describe dishes very simply and merely list the key ingredients. Florid language is out of favour in many establishments and the days of adjectival greed have gone. At Caravan, for instance, the ingredients speak for themselves, and at St John the menu is pared back to reflect the restaurant’s pledge to provide quality and simplicity.

Juliet feels this is symptomatic of a change in dining trends. Dining out used to be a rare occasion where customers wanted to see high levels of embellishment and artistry to make their visit special. Elaborate language would remind you that the food is of a superior quality to home cooking and people would be afraid to criticise the unknown. Today, eating out has become much more affordable, particularly with the surge of informal eateries such as food trucks and communal restaurants, so customers may shun occasional fine dining in favour of a greater variety of low cost options.

Ordering Tips and Trends For 2015

Now you know a little more about menu psychology, how can you order wisely and make sure you reap the benefits of your knowledge? Juliet says to always ask the staff what they would recommend. Staff will always want to receive a generous tip, so it’s in their interest for you to enjoy your meal. In a good restaurant, waiters should have tasted most of the dishes and be able to give you a truthful opinion.

Look out for chefs setting up new restaurants focusing on more basic dishes too – like Nuno Mendes (of recent Chiltern Firehouse fame) and his new restaurant Taberna do Mercado. With a smaller selection and precise focus, the menu will be honed to perfection and can offer great value for money.

About Juliet

After 30 years owning and managing restaurants in North East England, Juliet moved to London in 2007 to offer her wealth of industry knowledge to culinary businesses in need of advice. Her client list includes numerous start-ups as well as established companies creating in-house catering facilities and cultural institutions like the Tate and Charleston. Juliet charts her dining diary online at

Written by:

City lawyer by day, aspiring writer by night, Madelin primarily contributes to My Little Black Book's foodie section but also writes interview features and is a regular events reporter.  A fitness freak, feminist, gourmand, literature fanatic, and idealistic philanthropist, at weekends you’ll find her dashing around London compensating for lost evenings in the office!

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