Illustration: Matt Golding.
Illustration: Matt Golding.

David Wilson

Make no mistake: a menu is a manipulative document meant to make you spend more money than you anticipated. Blame the persuasive influence of a burgeoning trend called menu engineering: strategic tweaking designed to drive sales.

Especially if you are hungry, you may well be swayed by the guile of a menu engineer bent on bending your mind and denting your wallet. So here is an audit of some top menu mind games exposed by psychologists and catering industry insiders.

1. Absent dollar signs The most powerful ploy in the menu engineer's playbook is subtle - the omission of dollar signs. Dollar signs spark an adverse physical response, much like a pinch, according to restaurant consultant Aaron Allen. According to Cornell University research, diners relax and spend more when the numbers go naked. So, like clocks, which supposedly make clients twitchy, dollar signs have been widely banished.

2. Missing cents Menu engineering is as much about exclusion as presentation. Another minimalist menu design technique is stripping cents from prices, as in $2 instead of $2.15. Again, the reason for shaving the pennies is that they underline the painful, fiscal side of dining and look downright crass in the case of ''.99'' riders. In contrast, round numbers look enticingly friendly and confident. A big fat 10 conveys faith in the worth of a dish.

3. Nested pricing Notice how the figures are discreetly embedded. Shunning right-justification that could fuel comparison shopping, the menu engineer puts each item's cost at the end of its description in the same font size. That way, a diner is more likely to judge dishes by description not price - god forbid that anyone make an economically grounded decision.

4. Dear decoy A diner's ability to make a rational decision may be further eroded by a decoy: an extortionate item plonked at the menu's top. The decoy makes other dishes look more affordable and inviting, irrespective of whether they are nonetheless heavily marked up - as they may well be.

5. Vivid verbal contrast A variant on the spatial menu decoy trick is playing up a particular cash-cow dish by throwing it into relief through lavish description: that means drizzling the item with appetising adjectives and setting it beside a less profitable one advertised plainly. Again, the contrast makes the money-making dish look more alluring - even if it actually sucks.

6. Lyric licence Rich, descriptive language may also be used indiscriminately in a hard sell spirit, with the result that a whole menu is peppered with sensual adjectives such as ''creamy'' and ''succulent'' rather than ''fried''. Wholesome, hyphenated alternatives - ''all-natural'', ''hand-gathered'' and ''farm-fresh'' may also enter the picture. In their determination to romance the description, marketers embed brand names and link dishes to homely, relatable folk who evoke nostalgia, like ''grandma''. Friendly familiar names like ''Big Pete'' feature, too - the nominee may be a real local legend or even the proprietor. Or he might be fictional.

7. Not so special Speaking of fiction, those off-grid temptations cockily called ''specials'' may have nothing exclusive about them. The affordable special of the day could host an ingredient the restaurant owner over-ordered and must flog fast before it turns - if it is not off already. Likewise, the reasonably priced ''house wine'' is probably just musty, leftover plonk that needs drinking quick. Feeling queasy? The more you explore menu science, the more of a dark art it seems. The takeaway is simple: read between the lines and trust your gut. Oh, and if the waiter who hands you the menu touches your shoulder, remain sceptical because research shows that touch yields bigger tips.