The Anatomy of Restaurant Menus

By Sumit Goyal

Estimated read time: < 6 minutes

From wine-appropriate music, day specials to authentic-sounding foreign names, restaurants have devised many ways to influence diners into ordering high-profit items.

It’s not always easy trying to read a menu when you’re hungry like a wolf, woozy from cocktails or exchanging pleasantries with your dining partner. The eyes flit about like a pinball, pinging between set meal options, side dishes and today’s specials. The choice is never easy. Do I want comforting treats or something healthy? What’s cheap? Will I be able to finish the dish? What dish will make an Instagram worthy picture? — Oh God, the waiter’s coming.

Why is it so hard to decide what to order at a restaurant? A recent study indicates that most menus incorporate far more dishes than people want to choose from. And when it comes to choosing food and drinks, as an influential psychophysicist by the name of Howard Moskowitz once said, “the mind knows not what the tongue wants”.

I’ve chanced upon many such interesting nuggets being at the receiving end of it. For instance, when you ask most people what kind of coffee they like, you get a sort of an automated reply, “a dark, rich, hearty roast”. But in reality, only 25-30% want that. Most prefer weak, milky coffee. But their judgement is clouded by aspiration, peer pressure and social media influence.


Nightmare menu layouts

We generally scan the menu in a z-shaped fashion, starting at the top-left hand corner — whatever the pattern; though we’re easily interrupted by items being placed in boxes, next to pictures or icons, bold or in a different colour.


The language of food

The effect the name of a dish has on diners — “give it a label, such as an Italian name, and people will rate the food as more authentic.” Add an evocative description, and people will make far more positive comments about a dish’s appeal and taste. A label directs a person’s attention towards a feature in a dish, and hence helps bring out certain flavours and textures. But we are seeing a backlash against the menu clichés (drizzled, homemade, infused) that have arisen from this thinking. For some time now, at established restaurants, they have let the ingredients speak for themselves, in simple lists.


The burden of choice

Perhaps, this is part of the joy of a tasting or set menu – the removal of responsibility. And maybe the recent trend for tapas-style sharing plates has been so popular because it relieves the decision-making pressure and gives people almost everything they desire. Is there a perfect amount of choice?


A study shows that restaurant customers, across all ages and genders, do have an optimum number of menu items, below which they feel there’s too little choice, and above which it all becomes disconcerting. In a casual dining setup, people want an average of six items per category (starters, pasta, pizza and burgers, vegetarian choices, grills and main course, desserts), while in fine dining establishments, they prefer seven starters and desserts, and 10 main courses, thank you very much.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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