The New York Times has a great read on menu psychology and how the fonts, ordering and descriptions of food is engineered to get diners spending more at restaurants. Read a different way, it's a handy guide to culinary counter-intelligence.
Liking that item in the top-right corner of the menu, with the dotted border line around it? That's fine, but be aware it's probably one of the most profitable items for the owner to serve. In tough economic times, many restaurants have turned to menu redesign as a means of bringing in more cash. If you're interested in getting a full read on the food, and not just paying the highest food margin, heed the Times' findings:
Some restaurants use what researchers call decoys. For example, they may place a really expensive item at the top of the menu, so that other dishes look more reasonably priced; research shows that diners tend to order neither the most nor least expensive items, drifting toward the middle. Or restaurants might play up a profitable dish by using more appetizing adjectives and placing it next to a less profitable dish with less description so the contrast entices the diner to order the profitable dish.
Some of the tactics — like adding "Minute Maid" in front of orange juice — seem so strange as to be counter-productive, but restaurants that have been open long enough to share their secrets are probably restaurants that are doing well by them. If you've done any menu design yourself, or know the tricks of your own local eatery, let's hear about them in the comments.
Restaurants Use Menu Psychology to Entice Diners [NYTimes.com]