Restaurant Menus: Translating Cost and Taste
A well-designed menu is considered an easy way to separate diners from their dollars at a restaurant. Even mom-and-pop restaurants put a lot of time and effort into how they put together their menus in the hopes of not only directing you towards dishes with high profit margins but into tempting you to come back soon and try something else that sounds tasty. A good menu is advertising: a way to get consumers to spend more money. If you know some of the most important menu design tricks going in, you may still wind up ordering your favorite dinner — if the food's worth the price, why not? — but it can also help you decide to try a meal that's easy on the wallet.
The Gaze Pattern
Most diners look at a menu in exactly the same way. Depending on just how big a menu your waiter puts in front of you, you'll find that you look at it differently. On a one page menu, you'll generally scan the page quickly until you reach just below halfway down where you'll actually read all through the items placed there. The hot spot that a diner actually winds up spending the most time on differs between menus of different lengths varies: extensive research has gone into finding that spot for different sizes.
Most restaurants make a point of putting exactly two types of meals in their menu's hot spot: high profit margin dishes and signature meals. Dishes that restaurants always make money on aren't the highest priced meals on the menu, by the way — they're often simple (and fairly inexpensive) dishes like pasta with marinara sauce. Your favorite restaurant may do a very cheap pasta dish, but they're probably still making plenty of money on it.
Signature dishes also wind up in the hot spot for a very simple reason. Restaurants are pretty confident that you'll enjoy their signature dishes — and that you'll want to eat them again in the future. By placing their best dishes — regardless of profit margin — somewhere diners are sure to see them, restaurants are betting that they can keep you coming back for those particular flavors.
Most menus are constructed in similar sections. You'll see the appetizers at the beginning, along with lighter fare, while sides and drinks are towards the end, accompanied by desserts. But within that very set hierarchy, menu designers have a lot of wiggle room. For instance, within the salad section, you'll see the same emphasis on high profit and signature dishes at the beginning and end of the sections. Diners, as you might guess, spend more time looking at the first and last items in a section, often forgetting entirely what's in between.
Extensive descriptions aren't included on your menu to warn folks with allergies. It's to get your mouth watering. Many restaurants go out of their way to specify ingredients, preferring something like "applewood smoked bacon" over plain and simple "bacon." That added description has been shown to help sell dishes, especially when it's something that you're encountering for the first time. The feeling of adventurousness can be all that it takes to close a sale.
Choosing Your Meal
Hopefully, your budget allows you to choose a meal based on what sounds good, rather than the cost. Either way, though, you can use a menu's design to your advantage. Those high profit dishes that many restaurants like to push are often good options for your budget: the restaurant may make a ton of money on a bowl of pasta, but it's still one of the cheaper dishes on most menus. Choosing a signature dish is often an equally good decision, because it's a dish that the restaurant has worked hard to perfect.