Five Restaurant Menu Tricks (and How to Avoid Falling for Them)

Restaurants can be risky business ventures — just look at how frequently they come and go. So to make sure their eatery isn't just another flash in the pan, some restaurateurs employ a few subtle tricks to get diners, once seated, to more readily part with their cash.

There's the "free" salty snack (chips and salsa, anyone?) placed on your table before the meal to increase your thirst and compel you to order more pricey drinks. And then there's the way your server painstakingly describes every ingredient in the evening's specials, but declines to mention the price, knowing you may be too embarrassed to ask. And there's the way your wine glass keeps getting topped off, so that you get to the bottom of the bottle halfway through your meal and may feel inclined to order another one.

But the stealthiest strategy of all may be the sly tweaks made to restaurant menus to get you to fork over more moolah than you may have intended. Recently The Guardian noted a few such tricks.

Here are five to look out for:

1. Pricey Item Placement: Research indicates that we tend not to read a menu from left to right, as we would a book. Instead, our eyes gravitate first to the item in the upper-right corner. Consequently, the most-expensive item is often there. That's not necessarily — or not only — to make you more likely to order that particular item, though, but rather to make the next item you look at (dishes with high profit margins are often put right nearby), and pretty much any other menu item, seem affordable by comparison. In retail terminology, that pricey item, which can also garner viral chat and publicity, is known as an "anchor" item.

2. Sly Centering: Left-justifying menu items and right-justifying a column of prices makes it easier for customers to scan the list and pick out the least-expensive (and avoid the most-expensive) items, so menu items are often center-aligned to make it more difficult for customers to choose their dishes based on price.

3. Ditching the Dollar Signs: Diners tend to spend more when the prices of menu items are listed without the dollar signs, regardless of whether the numbers appear written out or numerically, a 2009 Cornell University study indicated. Knowing this, many restaurants leave them off.

4. Picture-Perfect: Menu items illustrated with a photograph or drawing tend to be ordered more frequently by diners, so menu images are often reserved for items with the highest profit margins.

5. Wine Wiliness: Restauraterus know that, while diners may shy away from ordering the most-expensive bottle of wine on the wine menu, they also avoid ordering the least-expensive bottle, because they don't want to look cheap.

How to Avoid These Tricks: Just being aware of these sly strategies will help you be a savvy restaurant patron. And here's another tip: If you're on a budget, look down at the bottom left-hand side of the menu, where diners tend to look last. This is where the least-expensive items are often placed.

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