How Restaurant Menus Make You Spend More

According to, “This past Saturday morning, the buttery sound of Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s words stopped me in mid-breakfast. On her radio show “The Splendid Table,” she spoke of menus being ‘invitations to pleasure,’ and there was something in that, with the sun streaming through my friend’s window, that sounded wonderful and right. But her guest was William Poundstone, author of ‘Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value and How to Take Advantage of It,’ and he talked about how restaurants use menus to manipulate you into spending more money than you intend.”

“‘Menus,’ he said, ‘are supposed to be the classic example of free choice, but menu designers have found that there’re many ways of getting you to order what the restaurant wants you to order’ — the most profitable dishes, presumably. The techniques he laid out are fascinating: a box drawn around certain items, for instance, always draws the eyes — and attention — there. This might mean these dishes best highlight the kitchen’s skills, or, more likely, they make the restaurant the most money: The ingredient cost is low, or maybe they take the least staff time to prepare. But, more subtly, the box might not simply be encouraging you to order whatever’s in it. ‘There are places where there’s a $150 hamburger,’ Poundstone said. “The first thing everyone does is shake their head. But then you go down the menu, suddenly the $50 steak doesn’t seem so outrageous.” Our sense of value is always relative, and a technique like this, which gets you over your sticker shock early, can skew that sense just enough for you to find yourself saying, ‘I’ll have the steak medium rare, please.'”