How to Read a Menu, the Scientific Way

For decades, the restaurant trade has believed that there's a sweet spot on the menus they hand to you — a section in the the upper right corner, where your gaze will focus — and that's where they tend to list their highest mark-up dishes. But are we really that gullible? Surprisingly enough, no.

The recieved restaurant wisdom, which is even peddled by consultancy firms, goes something like this. When you pick up a menu, your gaze instantly hits the right-hand side, just a little above the center. From there, you'll head up to the top-right corner, then across to the top-left. Next you'll read down the entire left-hand side, and finish by filling the gaps that are left at the bottom-right and the middle.

So entrenched is this view that even top restaurants rely on it. A couple of years back, The Guardian deconstructed the menu from Keith McNally's fancy New York brasserie Balthazar. What did they find? In that so-called sweet spot was the high-margin plateaux de fruits de mer at $70 and $115, and half a lobster at $23. Maybe sir would like a little champagne to go with that?

Well, Sybil Yang from San Francisco State University wouldn't. Instead, she'd like to get to the bottom of exactly how people do read menus. She explains:

"I could only go from my own experience. [But] I was thinking, 'am I just weird?' because I don't read [menus] that way."

So Yang rounded up some test subjects, kitted them out with an infrared retinal eye scanner, and made them read through mock menus. They were asked to choose a full meal, as if they were out for dinner, and she recorded the whole thing to analyze head movements, as well as capturing data from the retinal scan.

The result? There is no sweet spot. In fact, diners read the menu sequentially, like a book, moving from left to right and down the page. What's more, they read slowly: there's none of the impulsive behavior the received wisdom suggests. If anything, there is in fact a sour spot. It might not surprise you that this is the section where salads are listed.

That means that restaurants have had it wrong for years. There is some hope if you run an eatery, though. "The good news [for restaurants] is that people are reading the menus carefully, and that they seem to be choosing an entrée and then building a meal around it," explains Yang.

Position isn't everything on a menu, though. There are plenty more tricks that restauranteurs can use to trick you into buying their most profitable dishes – but all you can really do is keep an eye out and be suspicious. Looking back at the menu from the Balthazaar, for instance, shows that they tag a $15 shrimp cocktail next to the plateaux de fruits de mer. While $15 sounds a snip compared to the dishes nearby, it's also a great mark-up for the restaurant and bad value for the customer. You can expect the same thing on the wine menu.

The exact opposite is the decoy. "[These are] the items that are never meant to be chosen, but are placed there to affect your other choices," explains Yang. Elsewhere, be wary of any dish that is highlighted with a box or some other emphasis, because it's almost certainly something the owners want to shift, but remember to read right to the end of the menu. That's where you'll often find the affordable items in swanky establishments — and don't feel bad about ordering them.

So keep a careful eye out on the menu, read it the way you want to read it, and you can avoid the overpriced items and discover the hidden gems. Just don't expect your hosts to like the way you order. [International Journal of Hospitality Management and The Guardian; Image: Raison Descartier]