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13 Secrets Your Restaurant Menu Won’t Tell You

Here are the tricks your favorite eateries use to separate you from your money.

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Man looking at a menu in the restaurantMinerva Studio/Shutterstock

It’s all planned out

Have you ever entered a restaurant craving a spinach salad, only to end up ordering the pig roast special? Chances are, the proprietors had a hand in that outcome. Be it a high-end eatery or a fast-food joint, a restaurant’s owners have clever ways to influence your choice. That soft background melody? A Scottish study found that diners spent 23 percent more when slow-tempo music was played. The red walls? That color stimulates appetite. And then there’s the menu. With its mouthwatering prose and ample use of consumer psychology, of course you want to sample every dish. Which of these tricks have you fallen for? Psst: You should also know the secrets your restaurant server isn’t telling you.

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Man in restaurant reading the menuIryna Mandryka/Shutterstock

They omit the dollar sign

For some consumers, the dollar sign apparently screams, “Watch your wallet!” A Cornell University study found that guests at one restaurant, “given the numeral-­only menu, spent significantly more than those who received a menu with prices showing a dollar sign.”

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people, gathering and friendship concept - happy friends reading menu at restaurantSyda Productions/Shutterstock

They round up or end prices with 5

Prices ending with a 9, such as $9.99, “tend to signify value but not quality,” says The New York Times. Most restaurants round up; if not, they’ll go with .95. Watch out for these secret ways restaurants get you to eat more.

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Consonants that start with the lips indicate flavor

Names with lots of consonants that start with the lips and end in the throat (such as b) tend to mimic the mouth movements of eating. These dishes were rated more flavorful than dishes with names featuring consonants that start from the back of the throat (e.g., the c in “corn”), says a study from the University of Cologne in Germany.

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Portrait shot of bearded middle-aged man studying menu while unrecognizable waitress standing next to him and waiting for his order, interior of stylish restaurant on backgroundSeventyFour/Shutterstock

Watch out for boxes

A box around the name of a dish gives the impression that the item is special, says hospitality consultant Cenk Fikri. It works well for dishes that cost little to make and get marked up. The kitchen crew will never, ever tell you these dirty restaurant secrets.

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Mother with her son choosing dishes at table in the restaurantChubykin Arkady/Shutterstock

Images are better than words

When dining out, “healthy” is a synonym for “Where’s the flavor?” So restaurants often don’t reference health and instead indicate a dish is good for us by using a signpost, such as a leaf icon.

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Cropped image of customer asking waiter about food in menuLightField Studios/Shutterstock

Bold font and adjectives are key

People notice bold listings 42 percent more than plain type when they read, one study showed. As for the words “tangy” and “plump,” a different study, authored by Cornell professor Brian Wansink, found that the artful use of adjectives increased sales by up to 27 percent. His study showed that “those who ate foods with evocative, descriptive menu names rated [them] as more appealing, tasty, and caloric than their regularly named counterparts.” This is what restaurant owners wish they could tell you.

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Woman in a cafe picking on the menuPH888/Shutterstock

Look for complex fonts

“Italic typeface conveys a perception of quality,” reports the BBC. A study conducted by Swiss and German researchers found that a wine labeled with a difficult-to-read script was liked more by drinkers than the same wine carrying a label using a simpler typeface.

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Portrait of young beautiful couple sitting in restaurant with menu in hands. Nice African American girl with dark curly hair and boy with blond hair happily looking in menu at cafegaretsworkshop/Shutterstock

Long names draw the eye

If boxes, huge fonts, and italics don’t catch your eye, how about a super-long dish name? As the restaurant-software company Toast points out on its blog, anything that is different will draw the eye.

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Cheerful couple with menu in a restaurant making orderUfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock

Don’t just look at the top right corner

The most desired piece of real estate on the menu is at the top right because that’s the spot on the page where our eyes tend to be drawn first—so that’s where the restaurant’s most profitable dish will likely be found. And when you place the most expensive dish at the top of the menu, says William Poundstone, author of Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value, “everything else near it looks like a relative bargain”—even when it’s not. Here are some more sneaky menu tricks that are totally influencing your order.

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Businessman choosing food from menu and waitress taking his orderPressmaster/Shutterstock

Watch out for the chef’s picks

Phrases like “chef’s recommendation” are a way of telling you, “Order this!” Restaurants use them to sell their more profitable items and draw you away from your go-to dishes, which may not make them as much money. By the way, these are the foods chefs never, ever order in restaurants.

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Asian women looking at menu to order food while she wait her husband in bakery shopPanupong Thammachai/Shutterstock

Location, location, location

Restaurants use regional names to entice customers to order a particular dish, says Wansink. Want a good peach tart? Well, then, the peaches have to be from Georgia.

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Restaurant owner helping a customer with the menu. Customer ordering food looking at the menu at the billing counter.Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Brands build trust

Brand names in menu items confer a built-in trust and create a guarantee to diners that they will love the dish. Next, learn some simple ways to save money while eating out at a restaurant.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.