A photograph of a classy-looking menu.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons

You’re feeling a bit peckish. You go into a restaurant: it’s nice, with good lighting and delightfully chilly air conditioning. Then, when you sit down and start poring over the menu in front of you, and drool starts leaking out the corners of your mouth because you realize you’re starving. Well, here’s a fun fact: that’s what the menu wanted all along.

A menu is a more complicated creature than it initially appears. There are a few specific ways that menus target your hunger—and your wallet. An effective menu is all about placement and color: where your eyes go has a big impact on what you’ll order.

If an item is described in green, people are more likely to think it’s fresh (even if that’s not necessarily true); orange stimulates the appetite, and yellow is eye-catching and fun. And red, as it happens, is used to get people to buy the items that will yield the most profit for the restaurant.

When we look at a menu, we typically look at the middle first, so it makes sense that that’s where we’ll find the more expensive menu items that earn the most money for the business. They’re usually described so well that it’s hard to turn them down!

And here’s something extra-sneaky: some restaurants actively try to deceive diners about prices by putting a slightly more expensive item at the top of the menu to make the other selections seem like you’re getting more for less. And as with many other kinds of purchases, most menu prices will end in a number like .95 or .50, so if you’re looking at a dish that’s priced at $10.95, you’ll think you’re getting a meal for ten bucks, rather than eleven.

If the menu is created smartly, it won’t have too many options; too much choice can be entirely overwhelming. It’s less stressful to choose a dish if you only have a handful of options. The infographic suggests that restaurant owners list only seven dishes in each category so we feel like we have a good selection, but not so many options that it’s overwhelming.

But menu engineering isn’t the only way restaurants trick you into eating and spending money (and did you know that there’s an industry called menu engineering?). Restaurants make bids for your attention in a number of different ways. In the end you’ll end up ordering what sounds most delicious to you at the time, but it’s good to be aware of how the restaurant might get you to spend more money than you realize.