5 Tips to Reading a Restaurant Menu (and Getting the Best Deal)

by Thursday Bram · 28 comments

The art of writing a restaurant menu incorporates more than a nice layout: psychology and marketing both play big roles. While the local mom-and-pop restaurant may not have done a lot of research into how to sell more meals with the right menu design, you better believe that any big chain restaurant invests time and money into creating menus that make your mouth water and your wallet fall open. As a consumer, a little awareness of the strategies menu designers use can help you bypass all the marketing gibberish, letting you focus on getting the best value and the best meal. Here’s five.

  1. Half-way Down the Page: Depending on the size of the menu, there are hot-spots your eyes naturally fall on. On a one-page menu, the hot-spot is about halfway down the page, for instance. You’ll find two different type of dishes in hot spots — high-margin meals and signature meals. The signature meals are those that the restaurant knows it knocks out of the park — these are the meals that they bet will have you coming back time and again. Price and even cost-margin aren’t major considerations for these dishes because a restaurant owner can usually assume that if he can get you back in the seat time and again, you’ll keep spending money at the restaurant.
  2. High-Profit Margin Dishes: The second type of dish that is typically highlighted are those particularly profitable for the restaurant, like pasta dishes. Pasta is inexpensive to serve, even with a fancy sauce and meat or seafood. That doesn’t mean the pasta dishes are bad, or even that they’re priced out of line with the rest of the menu. They’re just the dishes with the highest profit margins for a restaurant.
  3. Hierarchy and Organization: Most menus are organized along the lines of how a meal might be served — appetizers, salads, entrees, and so on. But within that traditional hierarchy, a menu designer has a lot of freedom. Research has shown that readers look at the first and last items in a section. It is useful to look at those items (they’re often signature dishes) and may be the dishes that the owner makes the most money on, but looking deeper into the menu can provide some interesting alternatives.
  4. Specific Ingredients: Menu writing is meant to make your mouth water, with descriptions of seafood from a specific location or vegetables loaded down with adjectives. There’s a reason for all those descriptors, though. Not only are writers making food sound as appealing as possible , but they’re also providing an introduction for anyone encountering a particular ingredient for the first time. You may not recognize the name of every fish in the ocean, but hearing the location it comes from, even as broadly as the Pacific Ocean, can reassure you that it is at least somewhat familiar.
  5. Recommended Items: Your waiter will almost always have a recommendation or a special to tell you about — and it can come off as a rehearsed spiel. It can be designed to highlight the same dishes that the menus are meant to promote, but you can also use that spiel as an opportunity to get an honest opinion about what your waiter has tried.
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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

CD Phi July 28, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Let’s not forget the special dinner menu. Often times when we go to restaurants they’ll have a separate dinner or lunch menu w/ a cheaper deal. That always grabs my attention. Although actually, it might not be technically cheaper because they always try to throw on additional things like a side of baked potato and yank up the price.

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David April 13, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Maybe folks who look at the right side, what it cost, of the menu first should eat at home!

I eat out because I enjoy it, to lazy to cook or like being waited on.

Not into doggie bags!!!

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Jenna July 28, 2010 at 3:06 pm

I tend to order the larger food items which usually only cost a dollar or two more. That way I have a yummy lunch the next day.

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Greg McFarlane July 28, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Bram, you forgot the one item with the biggest margins: alcohol.

Go for “transparent” over red, white, or rose, and you cut the restaurant’s profit even more.

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giniajim September 4, 2010 at 5:23 pm

What do you mean by “transparent”? Couldn’t quite figure it out from the context.

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Miles January 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I’m guessing he means “water”. :-)

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Alfy September 18, 2011 at 7:31 pm

I own a restaurant and if everyone ordered water we would be out of business… if you are being cheap eat at home, if you really only drink water (like me) then splurge on the bottled water or order an extra side or a more expensive item.

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giniajim September 18, 2011 at 8:24 pm

We usually order a drink of some sort (tea, coke, wine, etc), but we’ll also ask for a glass of water too. I’m surprised that a restaurant would run so close that water would make that big of a difference, but on the other hand, I’m aware of the huge markup for things like colas, and coffee, so maybe there’s a point there. I like the bottled water idea, and I do like Perrier! So thanks Alfy for that suggestion.

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marc October 14, 2011 at 11:08 am

The statement by the restaurant owner above is more or less correct. Alcohol or at least non-alcoholic beverages other than water are what keep a “table service” restaurant afloat. A self seating, self bussing “counter service” place has far less overhead and can survive on food alone. But a full service restaurant is utterly dependent on beverage sales ESPECIALLY true if the owner leases the building as opposed to owning the property.
Did you ever stop and think about what is paying all those busboys, food runners, waiters, bartenders, and managers? Do you have any idea how many people it takes to run a kitchen? A well run, high volume, popular restaurant can make its payroll and pay the bills on food profits alone. Remember, this is a VERY WELL RUN and VERY POPULAR establishment that can do this. Do you understand this? Before the owner(s) have made a single penny, it has to take the money it makes from food and pay bills and employees! It is only from beverages that a restaurant is profitable and more often than not, the money made from beverages cover the losses food sales failed to achieve. When you order tap water instead of at least a soda, bottled water, or cup of coffee, you are bringing very little value to that establishment.

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Christopher July 2, 2012 at 8:25 pm

I’m not sure this is the case, marc. In fact, I’d say the opposite is true. Just think about price points; if you’re selling burgers for $3, you need that $2 per soft drink to be purchased because that’s an increase of 66% towards your sales figures. On the other hand, your $20-30 entrees should have been priced accordingly to get you your profit, and an extra $2 beverage should just be a cherry on top. Not only that, busboys, waiters, bartenders, etc. are paid just over $2 an hour, so you can actually have 3 waiters for the same payroll burden as one minimum wage cashier. NOTE: while some restaurants implement a loss-leader item on their full-service menu, I personally think this is a bad idea, because you can’t prevent people from ordering too many of them, and for every one that is purchased, you lose on the cost AND the potential profit from the customer purchasing a normal-margined item.

In the end, just follow the 30/30/30 rule.

1. Keep your food/beverage costs below 30% your sales price.
2. Keep your labor costs below 30% of sales.
3. Keep your rent/fixed costs below 30% of sales.

1. Calculate all your COGS and price the menu items accordingly.
2. You have way too many employees, are overpaying them, or they are working too inefficiently if you can’t fit your payroll into that formula.
3. Considering rents for mom-and-pop restaurants range from $3,000 to $10,000 a month for a fairly decent spot, if you can’t get your sales above $10,000 to $33,000 a month, you shouldn’t have opened in the first place, cuz that’s pretty minimal. Even a not-very-busy frozen yogurt shop can pull $30,000+ a month ($360K/year).

If you follow this general rule of restaurant markups, that’s an absolute minimum of 10% profit you will be making, and hopefully a lot more than that. I’ve done menu consultation in the past, and this formula has ensured success for all our clients.

*Disclaimer: I’ve never done price-war-style restaurants like Quizno’s, because I’m pretty sure their food costs are over 30% of the sales price, but their franchise forces them to follow along.

Healthy Living July 31, 2010 at 4:46 am

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CreditShout August 2, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I never really thought about the psychology that goes into a menu. I know how important the design is though (I watch a ton of restaurant reality shows….) I’ll have to be more aware if I’m more prone to a specific area of the menu, and whether or not these dishes are priced higher or are specialties of the restaurant. I agree with one of your readers though, I love ordering off the special menu because I know these dishes might not be around the next time I come in to eat.

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turned-off viewer September 4, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Useless, baseless information. Might (and this is a big might) be relevant to some lame chain restaurant serving you the microwaved cheese you all love, but for an independently-owned operation, these suggestions are way off kilter.

And enough already with the air that local eateries are making a killing off of your hard-earned cash. Trust me – they aren’t.

Get a clue,

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Matt October 13, 2010 at 4:26 pm

So specials are likely to be found either in the start, middle, or end of the menu? Fascinating read.

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Alex October 20, 2010 at 9:34 am

An interesting read–thanks for sharing… Some of the tips are a bit more obvious than others, but the post made me reflect back to the most recent time I dined out at a chain restaurant. Definitely remember a few of these sneaky menu tactics in play. (Even though I tend to be a creature of habit, ordering things based on the tastes I know and crave at the time.)

Also, some of the comments on here are incredibly acrid–what’s up with all the hate? I, for one, enjoyed the post–so kudos to the author on writing something light and interesting, and I hope you’ll ignore what some of these negative commenters are spewing. Think positive.

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Scott February 3, 2011 at 9:27 am

I try to be conscious of certain things, like coupons that require you to buy 2 drinks, but as infrequently as I dine out, I usually let myself fall prey to whatever marketing schemes are out to grab my attention. I do avoid simple pasta or chicken dinners that I would eat at home.

I love watching my wife though. She is so much more susceptible to marketing, or at LEAST, I can see when she is easily taken in. While walking down the dairy aisle, there was a desserty-looking new yogurt. The packaging was chocolate brown and the writing in cursive. I saw her glance that way, then on to the sale stuff, but I asked, “You wanted to get that, didn’t you?” And she said, “Ha yeah, how did you know.”

If a menu has an appealing picture it always gets her. And her favorite thing to do is to suggest what I order, too, so she gets to try more than one meal.

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Scott February 3, 2011 at 9:34 am

Ha, yeah, and to the haters. Chill out. I don’t get all of the comments ridiculing journalism everywhere online. Yes there are a lot of writers out there, and billions of not-front-page topics.

So just chill out. Are you upset you read it? Were you desperate for saving money at a restaurant. It’s not like you paid for it. If anything, maybe Thursday made the title more dramatic than the actual article. But come on, that’s the art of marketing. ;) Make it look appealing. And look what it did, got you here to up his hit count.

Regardless of how groundbreaking the “tips” were, this is an interesting topic that I bet will come up in many readers’ future conversations at restaurants.

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Always a server February 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Some might see it as a good suggestion, but as a server, I am genuinely uncomfortable when guests ask me for recommendations. Often people ignore the recommendations completely, which is fine, though I often wonder why they asked in the first place. The worst case scenario is that the person doesn’t have the same taste I do and when they order something I recommend, they then complain. This once led to a party leaving without tipping me and ripping the bill they had paid in half to further demonstrate their anger (While other parties haggled me for not recommending the same dish, because after they tried it, they loved it.)

I am also uncomfortable when someone asks me if something is “spicy.” There’s no way for me to adequately convey to another person’s tastes what “spicy” is.

Chances are, you might get good information on asking a server’s opinions, but you might also be setting up both the server and the enjoyment of your dinner for failure.

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Charla July 26, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Aww, what a shame. I usually ask the server what they recommend if I honestly can’t make up my mind. I’d never blame them for having different preferences than I do, but it’s nice to hear what they liked. (If I ignore the recommendation, it means I really don’t dig the sauce or whatever on your choice — nothing personal!)

Having been a server, I always recommended my favorites if asked.

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Super Football June 30, 2011 at 7:24 am

Thanks for sharing your Information…I think it’s very important and useful for your information.. hopefully. we can share any kind of information and I’m looking forward to reading the next article……

Best Regards,

Super Football

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Johnny Clay September 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Lemme share a couple of tips:

1) Know your palet. It might sound dumb to say but if you know what you like that’s half the battle. A majority of people are incredibly picky eaters. They believe they are foodies but they not. I waited tables for 8 years, and when people asked me to suggest something it normally took about 4 questions to narrow down the choices.

2) Don’t change a dish to your palet, order something else. Good restaurants have good chefs who create dishes to balance flavor and feel. When you start substituting, you open yourself up for disappointment. One restaurant I worked at had an awesome Sea Bass that I refused to let any guest change.

3) Ask your sever but beware. The uncouth server will suggest the most expensive items on the menu. I worked at a sushi restaurant where the most expensive rolls were awful, so I didn’t suggest them. Be sure to ask the server “what do you like” or even better “what do you get when you order food?” Do not ask “what’s popular?” Popular dishes are 75% crap you can get anywhere and 25% good stuff. Asking “what’s fresh?” is a great question especially for seafood. Ask for whatever came in that day.

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Louis February 15, 2012 at 2:20 pm

As a person who had many years in the service industry I want to respond to the server that was uncomfortable in giving recomendations. Oh please! Get off your mental butt. Pointing out recomendations can be as easy as asking the chef or cook what they would recommend. Is the prime exceptional today? Is the fish special really well received, does one cook have a particular talent for a pork dish Figure it out for goodness sakes. Customers do not expect a servers recomendations to be a old family recipe and yes sometimes they ignore it. But the server can also steer people away from dishes that may not be quite as well received. They can promote a special that is not only delicious but a good value? And avoiding telling a person the spicyness of a dish. I would speak to a manager or the chef before I would except a non answer. I assure you they would scratch their heads at a server who couldn’t adequately explain Servers earn by their ability to honestly enhance diners experiences, and also by helping to promote the restaurants bottom line. I would think I would prefer a drive through to this kind of server.

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Always a Server February 15, 2012 at 4:54 pm

I’m here again, the server that’s a bit reticent when making recommendations. I’m an excellent server–there’s no need to berate me for expressing an honest opinion. I of course make recommendations–I never said I didn’t. I know how to play the schmoozing game. One of the reasons I’m an excellent server (and that I can offer this observation at all) is that I over-relate to my guests–I sincerely want them to be happy. In my 10 years of service experience, I have found however that it’s a difficult dance to negotiate when you want to make a recommendation without risking. a. recommending something someone won’t like (but you do), b. tarnishing the reputation of the establishment where you work if you want to guide them away from a mediocre dish, c. over-selling a dish, and d. (the worst), accidentally insulting a person’s taste. I’m trying to advise that when you ask for a recommendation, do not then shift all of the responsibility of your choice onto your server. I ask for recommendations in restaurants when I’m having a hard time deciding, and I advocate getting recommendations in specialty restaurants like brewpubs, sushi places, etc,…but I generally think its a hard position to put your server in. That’s all I wanted to offer.

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Tom March 8, 2012 at 1:19 pm

I never thought about ordering “water” as making or breaking a restaurant. My family goes out to eat a lot, and we order water about 80% of the time. We drink water at the dinner table at home, so it’s no big surprise when my own pre-teens and teenagers order water at a restaurant, even though I have no problem at all with them ordering a Dr. Pepper or a lemonade. I usually tip really well for the wait staff, but for us, ordering water is not about being “cheap,” as some have suggested here. As for ordering a Perrier instead of tap water, that may be going a little overboard. I just can’t see ordering a Perrier for my 11-year-old.

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Louis March 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Order the water. Yes alcohol is the make or break for overhead. But not everyone drinks nor wants to spend hard earned dollars on soft drinks. Tip well, be sensitive to table time and enjoy. My wife and I tend to order appetizers and deserts but we would normally not clog a table at prime time to do this.
Sometimes we want to split a dish simply to keep the calories down. We order a second dish to go. We have them cook it at the Same time and we tip on the entire amount. Works well and once we explain our reasoning we have never been charged a second plate fee. Likewise with two for ones. We tip on the gross amount of both dishes.
So order your water. Restaurants need all kinds of traffic to stay in business. If they have an attitude about the water may be time to find a more understanding place.

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eaties? August 5, 2012 at 4:08 pm

I usually order water with lemon to ‘chase” the clorine taste, but it helps me tip decently. I’m retired and like to eat out, but $2.79 for a coke that cost the restaurant owner 17 cents just bothers me! Many times it’s filled with ice, so I’m drinking water anyway.

So, many times my tip is generous because I didn’t waste money on unhealthy drinks. And as far as being concerned that the owner may have to worry about his profit magin, that’s his problem; yes?

I’m not oblivious to the operational and food costs that restaurant owners face but they know that they have competion from fast food places and places that omit servers as part of their operation. Here in my part of Texas, they have so many eateries, that to get GOOD food is very difficult.
and FYI, I ask if food is hot/spicy to taste because my throat will close up with mexican heat! I’m trying to keep out of the ER!

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Brendan April 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Thanks for one of the most useless articles I have ever read. You basically said that the beginning, middle or end of the menu could be either their best items or highest margin items. How can you possibly believe that information is in any way useful?

Hey, here’s a great tip! To get the best meal at a restaurant, either go in the morning, afternoon or evening. Look at how great my information is. I should totally make a blog because I have such awesome tips! Here’s another free life tip because I am feeling so generous… Life is too short, too long or just right so make sure you live life to the fullest or just take it easy or spend your time somewhere in-between those extremes!

Thanks again for your wonderful article. I will either spend a lot of time, very little time or some time remembering this the next time I am eating out.

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James May 12, 2012 at 7:48 pm

@Brendon: You wrote exactly what I was thinking as I read this useless piece o’ crap, so I won’t repeat it.

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