Psychology: How Menu Format Influences Our Restaurant Choices

Each of us has already experienced this scene: you arrive at the restaurant, sit at a nice table before the waiter hands you the menu to order. Today this can take different forms: laminated sheet, notebook, brochure. Its content can also be very varied, sometimes there are photos of the dishes, various fonts and a string of colors; just as the organization of the dishes can also be multiple, depending on the ingredients -meat, chicken, fish-, the tastes of each one -vegetarian, regional cuisine-, or even presented according to the sacrosanct triptych appetizer, main course, dessert. These elements, which are not usually thought of, are part of a whole field of psychological study called “menu psychology” in English or “cardpsychology”.

Too many details on the map is not very encouraging

The design of a menu can have several motivations: to ensure the flow of perishable products, to maximize the sale of the most profitable dishes or in canteens, to promote the most “healthy” meals. Thus, several factors will contribute to putting together a particularly attractive card.

Recently, researchers at Monclair University in New Jersey (USA) carried out an amazing study. They recruited 266 students and offered them three card formats: a generic menu, one that framed only healthy dishes, and a final one made up of healthy dishes but where nutritional information was also indicated. Results? The latter, therefore the most detailed menu, does not encourage participants to move towards healthy dishes. Whereas whoever merely frames them has a real effect. Under these conditions, the study authors advocated masked incentives rather than explicit information, which they argued could lead to feelings of guilt and resistance to choice.

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The art of the right turn

Other research has investigated what influences the selection of a dish regardless of its price. Thus, a team from the University of Ithaca (New York State) revealed that adding a description of the dishes had the effect of increasing their success: we often make fun of the convoluted titles in certain restaurants but it seems, for example, that the mention “filet mignon with its mushroom sauce” was chosen less than “filet mignon with a creamy sauce of fresh mushrooms prepared the old-fashioned way”. You’ll notice that this cursive writing owes nothing to chance as it also seems to give the illusion of being in a higher-end establishment. Obviously, the role of the menu is not limited only to the choice of dishes but also influences the perception of the restaurant. Finally, researchers from Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg (Virginia) go in the same direction by concluding in another study that a heavier menu in the hand plays with the perception of a great restaurant. But this is less the case, on the other hand, with the color of the font or the quality (the weight) of the paper.

As you can see, and although it may seem anecdotal, every detail of a map can be studied. To the point that on the other side of the Atlantic a new specialty of “menu designer” has been developed. Its use is sometimes costly, as is the final impact, which is difficult to quantify in terms of effectiveness on sales. Some scientists are even openly skeptical of such a discipline despite its growth. One of them, Dr. Clark Kincaid of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, absurdly demonstrated that flipping entire pages of a menu has almost no impact on sales and warns against hiring menu design consultants inopportunely.

The main thing is on the plate.

After more than two years of pandemic where paper cards and menus are increasingly rare (because they are replaced by a QR code that we flash on our phones to consult them on our screens), it will be interesting to see how marketing practices but also the field of study of “menu psychology”.

The express

You even have to bet that a new branch could emerge: a kind of dematerialized psychology that would take up the design codes of the web. This may amuse some researchers, especially when this kind of fad is gaining steam, but let’s not forget that there is no trick to disguising tasteless food. The main thing is what is on the plate.



Pierre Assouline, journalist, writer, member of the Goncourt jury and columnist for L'ExpressPierre Assouline


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