psychology of menu design

The Psychology of Restaurant Menu Design

Next time you pick up the menu at your favorite restaurant, instead of making your decision right away, consider the psychology of the restaurant menu design and what items you think the menu is trying to make you select. Look at the way the menu is laid out, the colors that are used and the descriptions of each dish. This is all part of the restaurant menu design psychology.

Every menu is carefully constructed to persuade you into making certain decisions, predominantly ones that will ultimately make you spend more money. The psychology behind menu engineering is backed by science and countless hours of research, and covers aspects such as positioning, color theory, use of buzz words, controlled costing and more.

We’ve explored the main techniques menu engineers implement in the psychology of restaurants’ menu design to subtly influence the decisions you make, making for an eye opening read and changing the way you choose your dishes. Even though it seems tactical in nature, the restaurant CEO should care about the menu, as every effort to grow sales has the menu as the protagonist.

Psychology of Menu Design


The colors on a menu can affect what we order. Green implies the food is fresh, and orange stimulates the appetite. Yellow is a happy hue and is used to catch the diner’s attention. Red encourages action and is used to persuade us to buy the meals with the highest profit margins.

The Menu Strategy Must Be Holistic

When done correctly, a holistic improvement is possible that also delivers benefits in terms of operational efficiency, brand and competitive differentiation, media interest that garners positive publicity, guest appeal that stimulates new trial and frequency, sustainable lifts to sales and profitability, and even reinvigorate morale and employee engagement at the unit level.


When we look at a restaurant’s menu, our eyes typically move to the middle first before traveling to the top right corner and then, finally, to the top left. This has been dubbed the ‘Golden Triangle’ by menu engineers, and these three areas are where you’ll find the dishes with the highest profit margins.


Restaurants pay close attention to how each meal description is written. Superlative claims – descriptions like “the world’s best burger” – can’t possibly be true, and diners will simply ignore them. However, enticing adjectives, like “line-caught” or “sun-dried,” will feed the imagination and get our taste buds tingling.


We subconsciously order the top two items in each menu section more often, so restaurant owners tend to list their highest-margin dishes first. However, some people tend to pick the bottom option, so the last item in each section is usually a restaurant’s third most cost-effective dish.


Paying for a meal is the biggest pain point when dining out. Crafty restaurateurs remove currency signs from the restaurant menu design to take the emphasis away from the cost of the items you’re ordering. Beware of prices written out in letters – this tactic can encourage us to spend up to 30 percent more.


No matter how tempting each dish sounds, diners still take the price into account. Restaurateurs use this to their advantage – for example, a meal priced at $10.95 makes us feel like we’re getting a good deal. Exclusive establishments tend to use round numbers, adding an air of chic sophistication.


A huge menu might seem like a good idea, but being forced to choose between hundreds of options can make us feel stressed. Savvy restaurant owners list just seven dishes in each section – enough to make us feel like we have plenty of options without overwhelming us.


Nostalgia is a powerful force. A carefully worded description can load almost any dish with an emotional resonance that is hard to resist. Diners beware – that tempting slice of ‘Grandma’s Apple Pie’ you’re about to order has probably been languishing in an industrial freezer for months.


Some restaurants try to deceive their diners by placing a slightly more expensive item at the top of the menu. This makes all the other dishes appear to offer more bang for your buck. It also gives us the impression we’re getting a bargain, encouraging us to spend more.


Most items on a menu will have descriptions of a similar length to fit in with the general layout of the page. Something that doesn’t fit the pattern will stick out like a sore thumb and catch our attention. Knowing this, restaurant owners tend to write longer descriptions for the dishes they want to sell more of – items with the highest profit margins.


Restaurant wine lists can rival the average novel in length, especially in high-end establishments. This is a deliberate marketing tactic designed to empower guests to make a decision. The more information listed about each vintage, the more likely we are to choose the wine.


If a restaurant menu design is crammed with text, the eye will naturally be drawn to any open spaces. Menu designers use this to their advantage – items with the largest profit margins are often set in their own space, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the descriptions.


The material of the menu is used to communicate the brand image. High-end restaurants use leather and thick paper to suggest their food is of a similar quality (and, therefore, worth ordering), while a cheaper restaurant might use vinyl to communicate a menu that represents good value for the money.


Look out for a glossary section on the menu. You’re more likely to order the pricy steak tartare if you know exactly how it’s prepared (and produced). This is also why restaurants sometimes list their fancy-sounding wines by the number, so patrons don’t feel intimidated by the unfamiliar names.



Aaron Allen & Associates is a leading global restaurant industry consultancy specializing in growth strategy, marketing, branding, and commercial due diligence for emerging restaurant chains and prestigious private equity firms. We have helped restaurant companies around the world drive revenues, increase profits, and enhance the guest experience through improved marketing, messaging, and menu engineering. Collectively, our clients post more than $300 billion, span all 6 inhabited continents and 100+ countries, with locations totaling tens of thousands.