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Menu Revamps, the New Way to Squeeze Dollars Out of Diners

The new front in the battle of restaurants v. the Great Recession: menus. A couple of weeks ago New York ran an item on William Poundstone, an author and marketing whiz who dissected the psychological triggers built into menus. And today, the Times joins in on the menu beat, noting that restaurants across the country are switching up their styles to squeeze every possible penny out of ever cash-strapped diners.

One of the main case studies in the Times piece is Tabla, which is relaunching mostly through its new menu. Says owner Danny Meyer, “The chefs write the music and the menu becomes the lyrics, and sometimes the music is gorgeous and it’s got the wrong lyrics and the lyrics can torpedo the music." (Grant Achatz also compares the menu to music later in the article.) After going back and forth, they removed some Indian phrases that alienated some diners, made the menu black and white after experimenting with colors and shading, and kept references to chef Floyd Cardoz's grandmother Bodie.

Here, a few psychological tricks of the trade menu consultants are suggesting for both independent and chain restaurants nationwide. See how they compare to the tips from New York:

· don't use dollar signs, don't use cents
· pimp out a signature item
· "romance" a description by using words like "smokehouse" bacon, "farm fresh" eggs
· use a decoy, an expensive item at the top of the menu to make others look cheaper.
· set off profitable items with a box
· reference grandmas, moms, etc.
Of course, none of the above applies to high end or experimental restaurants. Alinea in Chicago, for example, gives the menu to the diner at the end, since they don't have much of a say over what they're going to eat anyway. Craft, meanwhile, has streamlined its menu, removing descriptions of the farms they use.
· Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners [NYT]
· Menu Mind Games [NYM]