Bottoms Up: The psychology of a menu

It’s the holiday season and many of us will be dining out a fair bit. Whether ordering food or drinks, did you know that menus are designed to psychologically push us to order specific items? It’s called “menu engineering” and much research has gone into how it works.

Let’s start with the look and feel of a menu. Its overall appearance conveys an important message about the dining experience you are about to have. Elaborate covers, fancy binding, and a heftier weight indicates that the consumer is perhaps in an upscale establishment where the food and service will be superior. Then there’s the content. What font and colour are used to list menu items convey similar type messages to the customer. When it comes to typeface, italics are found to convey a perception of quality and rounder fonts associate consumers with sweeter tastes. The colour green tends to imply the food is organic, fresh and healthy. Red suggests a sense of urgency and draws the consumers’ attention to dishes or drinks the restaurant really wants to promote. Orange has been found to stimulate the appetite.

Next up are food and drink descriptions. Descriptive language, especially if attaching some provenance to the ingredients, adds much. Terms like home-made, handmade, organic, etc. give the impression of quality. Stating the name of a farmer who grew a vegetable or raised the livestock that a dish is made from adds authenticity to a product.

The use of sensory words, like unctuous, succulent, melt-in-your-mouth, and so on makes a dish much more appealing. The use of brand names or nostalgic references like “the original” or “ye olde” in descriptions have also proven to be effective. Qualitative expressions like “prime cut” and “long aged” work well. Even patriotic or family-related references like “Canadian” or “Grandma’s home-baked”, play a huge part.

Although words can influence our choice and make a dish or drink sound enticing, they can also make our mouths water. Using words that simulate what a particular food is like when we eat it, like chewy, flaky, creamy, crisp, refreshing,  can influence our choices big time by making us salivate. Perhaps most influential in making our mouths water are pictures. If a menu item has a picture attached, our brains will “taste” what is pictured. Depictions of ooey, gooey cheese; glistening, juicy, grilled meat; rich, creamy sauces; frosty, freshly garnished cocktails, etc. can sell a product outright, providing the photography and food styling is excellent.

Highlighting a specific menu item by placing a box around it or using a logo like “seasonal” or “heart-healthy” goes a long way in influencing choice. Apparently, there is a hot spot on the first page of a menu: the upper right hand side, so an item wishing to be highlighted is often placed there. Also, since we read a menu like a book (from top to bottom),  “the first item on the menu is also the best real estate.”

Finally we come to pricing. If the most expensive item is placed at the top of the menu, it makes those that come after it seem far more reasonably priced. The old, retail trick of pricing items that end in “.99” (not $7, but $6.99, for example) is common and works. Many establishments have found that by actually dropping the “$” sign in front of prices or even writing out prices in words helps by not reminding the customer that they are spending money.

Edward Finstein is a wine writer, author, educator, judge. Reach him at

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