There are a lot of ways you could describe dining out, but "psychological warfare" probably isn't the phrase that springs to mind. In truth, it's not a bad metaphor for the barrage of techniques restaurants use to coax a few extra dollars out of your wallet.
Knowing these tricks of the restaurant trade can help you understand when you're being manipulated unfairly, and help keep you from over-paying when you eat out.
Location, Location, Location
Location is said to be the key to restaurant success, and that applies to the menu as well. Menu design is a whole field of study in itself, and you see its principles in restaurants from casual to fine. The middle of the page and its top corners are the areas that draw your eye most consistently, so you'll see high-dollar or high-margin items placed there prominently.
Boxes, borders and white space draw the eye automatically as well. A menu item that's surrounded by a box, or a blank area, will almost always be one the restaurateur really, really wants you to order.
Another technique places the most expensive item at the top of a section. It'll catch your eye there, increasing its chances of selling, and it will also make the rest of the items look cheaper in comparison: A win-win for the restaurant. The second position and last position in each section are other places the eye dwells, so you can expect to see high-margin or high-dollar items carefully slotted in there.
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Words Are Cheap, So They’re Spent Freely
Suppose you open one menu and see this: "Fragrant slices of Derby cheese on hand-cut fresh brioche, grilled in our sandwich press and served with crisped sage leaves from our chef's herb beds." Now consider a similar offering from a second menu: "Gourmet grilled cheese sandwich."
The first one is likelier to sell and to command a higher price, despite it being essentially the same dish. The difference is largely in the language used to sell it, and that's what makes menu writing such an art form.
As a rule, the more words a menu lavishes on a specific item, the more the restaurant wants you to buy it. That's especially true when they use sensory words — crisp, sizzle, fragrant — or emotional ones, such as "traditional," "comforting" or "Grandma's." When you see them, know you're being consciously manipulated, so focus on what the dish is and not what the menu says about it.
Sound and Vision
You might not pay much attention to the music playing at your favorite hangout, but a thoughtful restaurateur certainly does. Hospitality operators have known for decades that up-tempo music tends to make people eat faster, while slower, quieter tunes create a mellow vibe that keeps you in your seat longer. Brighter or dimmer lighting can reinforce the effect.
The music you hear depends on the establishment's goals. If it's a busy lunch place that depends on turning tables quickly to make a profit, you can expect up-tempo tunes and bright lighting. At night, in a fine-dining restaurant where keeping you in your seat increases the odds of selling more wine or a dessert, expect mellow lighting and low-key music.
You might even find that the same restaurant wears a different face depending on the time of day, using faster music in the daytime for quick turns and mellow music at night for leisurely dining. Either way, learn to tune it out and dine on your own schedule.
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That Really Friendly Server
The best servers are also salespeople, and when you're in the hands of a master, you'll never even see it coming. Whether it's a bubbly youngster telling you to save room for the to-die-for chocolate cheesecake or a suave, formally dressed sommelier hinting that there's an extra-special Pinot Noir in your immediate future, waiters are proactively priming you to yield to temptation.
This is one of the best psychology tricks at the restaurant's disposal, because when it's done well it means they're helping you rationalize something you already want. After all, that dessert won't be as many calories if you split it, right?
Restaurants walk a fine line with this one, because it can quickly become a mindless checklist for the server — "Want fries with that?" — or worse, come across as pushy and aggressive. When executed correctly, you'll just feel that the server has taken care of you very well. You'll probably even celebrate spending more than you'd intended by leaving an extra-big tip.
Table talkers are a sort of secondary menu — they're the stands and flip-cards that stay on the table all day and draw both your gaze and hands as you wait for your server or your food. They're the eating-out equivalent of the impulse items at the supermarket checkout line, designed to take advantage of idle moments.
In the bar, you can expect to see table talkers promoting high-profit cocktails or the kind of highly seasoned, addictive finger foods that get more appealing as the empty glasses accumulate. In a restaurant, they'll usually push wine, drink specials or lovingly photographed desserts.
It's relatively easy to say no to a server who pops up alongside your table and offers a brief moment of temptation. It's much harder to resist that glossy, laminated page with its vivid colors calling to your taste buds again and again.
Dishes Do the Selling
Perhaps the simplest form of manipulation restaurants use is showing you a dish as it goes past your table. Many restaurants construct dishes specifically intended to catch your attention as they pass through the dining room.
They might be especially lavish in a fine-dining restaurant or require tableside preparation with plenty of drama and a sudden flame. In more casual establishments, fajitas or steaks served on sizzler platters serve the same purpose. The aroma of the seared meats and the sound of the cast iron sizzling are powerful motivators, urging you to order the same. Yeah, that's right: They really do "sell the sizzle."
Dessert carts, and the little trolleys of dim sum that circulate in Chinese restaurants, serve the same purpose. After you've watched them roll by a few times, admiring the view or savoring the aromas, you're an easy target.
One of the most universal tricks of the restaurant trade is bundling menu items. It's psychologically a clear winner, offering what appears to be much better value for a relatively small increase in spending.
This works like a charm at every level of dining. If you've ever opted for a combo at your local burger joint or Chinese takeout, you've experienced this at the low end. Surprisingly, it works in fine dining as well. Bundling a flight of multiple wines with a meal or a bottle rather than a glass, drives up the total revenue from your table quite nicely. So do those wonderful pairings restaurants promote, where you'll get to try special dishes matched with specific wines, spirits or craft beers.
The only answer to this one is to know what you plan to order and stick with it. Like servers who sell really well, this trick works by helping you rationalize doing something you'd already like to do.
Restaurateurs with imagination understand that the restaurant's name and brand are assets and try to get as much leverage from them as possible. Sending you home with a free calendar or matchbooks with the bar's name on the cover is for amateurs. Serious players want you to promote them everywhere you go — and they'll make you pay for the privilege.
Restaurants don't have to be the Hard Rock Cafe to make a good thing out of merchandising. A place with a reputation for craft beers can sell you the pitcher along with the brew at a tidy markup. Ditto that super-duper cocktail in the glass you get to keep or the commemorative shirt that gives you bragging rights as an opening-week customer at the hot new night spot.
To avoid a side of buyer's remorse with tomorrow's hangover, think about your merchandise purchases the same way you would a purchase at any retailer. If that shirt looks good on you, if you'd really get some use out of the barbecue apron, or if the chef's cookbook looks like a winner, great. Otherwise, just say no.