Is that menu messing with your head?

It’s what’s for dinner, or is it?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

My wife and I go out to dinner probably more than we should.

You’d think a restaurant menu would be a straightforward set of information designed to equip us, typical customers, as we make our optimal and most appropriate dining choice.

As with everything it seems, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

That menu might look like a simple listing of the food options and their prices, but there is a strategy behind how those menu items are presented on the limited “real estate” of your standard menu.

If there were ever a case for the “less is more” philosophy, it would be on your high end menu.

You ever notice that low end and fast food menus tend to be crammed with information, photos and even the occasional cartoon characters?

Higher end menus almost always focus on a near minimalist approach with plain fonts, black ink on white (or off-white) surface with even the prices listed as bare as possible.

I’ve noticed that a fast food place might have a listed price as 3.99 (or even a 3.78) while a higher end place might just use whole numbers and say 4.

Even notice how few places, at any level, use dollar signs?

Lower end places – like most Teriyaki places – often have photos, sometimes even models, of their offerings.

Higher end places almost never do – and most will not have flowery descriptions, just a plain description, though often with a French or Italian flair or emphasis to remind us of the exotic and delectable delicacy in front of us.

Restaurant menus are not written in code, but they can take some work to fully decipher.   Photo: Morf Morford
Restaurant menus are not written in code, but they can take some work to fully decipher. Photo: Morf Morford

You’ve probably noticed that virtually every restaurant of note emphasizes that its menu features items “line-caught,” “farm-raised,” “sustainably grown” or “locally-sourced”.

Many restaurants promise comfort food with a familiar – if not family – touch.

Meals, especially dinners, are always about far more than food. Eating is a shared primal, experience, something we all do, it is universal yet individual, and we mostly do it with people we know and have a continuing history with.

Few of us are comfortable eating alone in public.

Going out to dinner is an experience, and that is what the higher end places are selling  – the atmosphere, the anticipation and the memory.

The food on the plate (sometimes literally) is a small part of the experience.

You may have noticed an inverse relationship between how much you pay and how much you get on your plate.

You may have noticed that at the most expensive places, the more you pay, the tinier your servings.

The preparation may be more involved, the main course may be more exotic and the presentation may be worthy of a gourmet magazine, but the portions may be miniscule.

Food scientists have found that the maximum taste experience is two bites. Anything more has a dramatic decline in positive taste experience.

So instead of a massive steaming platter, of perhaps yakisoba noodles and vegetables, a higher end place will offer an Instagram worthy meal of a sumptuous variety of tiny delicacies.

Mid-range restaurants tend to specialize in wholesome and traditional foods because “They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to order “home-made Grandma’s Chicken Soup.”

Dining out is usually about far more than food.  Photo: Morf Morford
Dining out is usually about far more than food. Photo: Morf Morford

Just as supermarkets put profitable items (especially breakfast cereals) at eye level  (1*), restaurants design their menus to make the most of your gaze. The upper right corner is prime real estate. The upper right is where most readers will go on a blank sheet of paper or in a magazine. That’s where the most profitable items usually go. You can expect to see appetizers on the upper left and salads underneath that.

When it comes to restaurant prices, you don’t always get what you pay for. On menus, perspective is everything.

One trick many restaurants use is to include an incredibly expensive item prominently placed near the top of the menu, which makes everything else seem reasonably priced.

Your server never expects you to actually order that $300 lobster, but it sure makes the $70 steak look reasonable, doesn’t it?

Slightly more expensive items (so long as they still fall within the boundaries of what the customer is willing to pay) also suggest the food is of higher quality. This pricing structure can literally make customers feel more satisfied when they leave. For example, one study gave participants an $8 buffet or a $4 buffet. The food was exactly the same but the $8 buffet was rated as tastier.

Wine is a perfect example of this principle. In a blind taste test, even wine experts could not notice the difference between “cheap” wine and a more expensive vintage. When told that the wine was expensive, it suddenly “tasted better”.

A simple principle with wine or food is to avoid anything in a box – on the menu.

“Past performance is not indicative of future results” may be truism of financial investing, but it certainly does not hold true in the world of dining out.

Most of the time the typical restaurant customer knows what they want – and they know this because they have had it before.

“Give the customer what they expect” is the first principle of virtually every restaurant at any price point.

The second controlling principle of a successful restaurant is that repeat customers account for about 70 percent of sales. Getting diners to return is the ultimate goal.

You ever notice that in major fast food chains, a hamburger or an order of fries is the same anywhere in the world?

World travellers, or at least the American version of world travellers, tend to congregate at “American” style restaurants.

That burger or slice of pizza or piece of KFC, in the midst of jet lag and culture shock may not be a culinary delicacy, but as a taste of home, you can’t beat it.

Food is always far more than physical nourishment.


(1*)    Ever notice how the “eyes” of cereal boxes on a typical grocery store shelf are “aimed” at eye level?