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Menu Mind Games

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Ever wonder where that sudden craving for pork belly comes from while perusing the latest it restaurant’s menu?  It may have less to do with spontaneous pig lust and more to do with what—and how—you’re reading.

“Menus are essentially mini-billboards,” says Brian Buckley, a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City who teaches a class on opening restaurants.  And like all advertising, plenty of forethought goes into the concept, design, and execution.

A major tactic: menu layout.  “Restaurants use boxed items to single something out as the specialty of the house or the evening,” says Buckley.  Of course, these specials are often big-ticket items, or dishes that the house has a vested interest in selling.


Savvy restaurateurs will also consider how people read, by listing their dishes in a way that naturally catches a customer’s eyes as they scan the page.  There’s also a science behind the order in which grouped items are presented on a menu. “The first two items in each category are often the most popular or the biggest sellers,” says Buckley.

Finally, a dated menu gives the impression of fresh, seasonal cuisine—even if the only thing that’s changed on the menu that day is the date.

Sure, there’s a fine line between falling victim to marketing and casting suspicious, sidelong glances at the wait staff of your once-favorite eatery.  Your best bet?  Read the menu with your eyes open and order what you really want.

For more on menus, check out Bruno Maddox's recent article, The Allure of Restaurant Menus.

Nina Fedrizzi is an editorial intern at Travel + Leisure.

Illustration by Nathan Fedrizzi



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