Sneaky Ways That Restaurants Trick You Into Spending More Money

The average American dines out four times a week. With all the time you spend at restaurants, the last thing you want to worry about is whether or not you’re being tricked into spending more money. Unfortunately, the restaurant industry will do just about anything they can to get more of your money.

Their sneaky tricks involve everything from how they lay out the menu to the ways they describe their food. Read up to learn how you can avoid being duped the next time you decided to dine out.

There’s a reason why the most expensive items are placed in this particular spot on the menu.

All Those Fancy Descriptive Words Aren’t Necessary

menu with too many descriptions
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Sometimes looking at a menu can feel like reading a novel because restaurants add so many unnecessary adjectives. A menu description for Eggs Benedict might say “farm-fresh cage-free eggs on top of a fresh-baked sweet Artisan bun with creamy Hollandaise sauce.”

The reason they do that instead of simply telling you the ingredients is that studies show you’re 30% more likely to be attracted to an item with “over-baked language.” Hopefully, the dish you order isn’t over-baked too.

Family Connections Are Done On Purpose

homestyle restaurant connection creates nostalgia
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Family connections on menus refer to items like “Grandma Doreens’s Apple Crumble” or “Uncle Joe’s Chicken Fried Chicken.” Restaurants have figured out that when they make it sound like a family member’s dish, then you are more likely to make a nostalgic family connection and order the dish.

There is also a chance that seeing a family name on the menu item will make you feel like the dish is prepared in a “homestyle” way and evoke the same emotions that comfort food does.

Anchor Items Trick You Into Ordering Other Items

lobster restaurant anchor item
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Most menus feature one anchor item that is so ridiculous you’d never actually order it. It’s usually the one dish that’s highlighted at the top, described as a “specialty” and priced at an amount so high it makes you want to cry.

Those items are never actually meant to be ordered all that much. They are there to make it seem like everything else on the menu is a bargain. A $20 order of oysters doesn’t sound so bad in comparison to a $90 gold-encrusted lobster tail, does it?

Keep reading to find out why you should never order the second-cheapest bottle of wine.

Brand Names Work Like Family Names

bailey irish cream brand name restaurant trick
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Similar to the way that restaurants prey on our connection to family, they do the same when it comes to brand names. That’s why you’ll often see ingredients highlighted like a Jack Daniels barbecue sauce or a Baileys-infused chocolate brownie. It’s been proven that people are more likely to order a dish that features a brand name they already know and love.

Of course, that can also backfire. If you don’t like Jack Daniels, you might avoid a dish you would have ordered without it.

Over-The-Top Dishes Serve A Purpose

restaurant fajitas for attention
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Everyone knows that you only order fajitas if you want to be the center of attention because hearing the sizzling plate go through the restaurant catches everyone’s eye. Restaurants do this on purpose with a few high-price menu items because they hope the presentation will inspire other people to order it.

The same is true in fancier restaurants when dishes require table-side preparation or for desserts that get flambéed when they bring it out.

Never Order The Second-Cheapest Bottle Of Wine

wine bottle second cheapest in restaurant
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If you’re out on a first date and want to order a bottle of wine to impress someone, beware of the second-cheapest one. Restaurants will often increase the price of the second-cheapest bottle because people don’t want to seem cheap by ordering the lowest-priced bottle.

Thrifty people will choose the second-cheapest bottle even though it usually has a huge markup on it. Instead, choose a midrange bottle or just swallow your pride and order the cheapest one.

Do you know those mini menus that sit on the table that feature cocktails or desserts? This is how they can trick you.

Table Talkers Are The Equivalent Of Impulse Items

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Table talkers are the official restaurant name for those stands and flip-cards that remain on your table. Sometimes they feature specialty menu items or desserts while others will feature over-priced cocktails. Table talkers are basically the equivalent to the candy in the supermarket checkout line.

The point of the table talker is for you to flip through it as you wait for your server or for your food to come. Then when the server pops up asking if you want dessert then it’s harder to resist.

Keep reading to find out why the menu layout makes a huge different.

Making You Wait At The Bar Is A Trick

waiting at the bar restaurant trick
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Restaurants will often invite you to wait at the bar when there aren’t any tables available. One of the reasons they do this is pretty obvious: you’ll spend money on drinks before even reaching your table. That extra glass of wine will add up for the restaurant over time.

Another reason they’ll sit you at the bar is to make you hungrier and hungrier. This will make you either order appetizers that you normally wouldn’t, or a bigger menu item.

Our Eyes Move Across Menus In A Predictable Pattern

francis ford coppola menu geyersville california
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Menus all tend to be laid out the same and there’s a psychological reason behind in. When scanning a one-page menu, our eyes begin at the top right, then move to the top left, then across the page to the bottom right, and finally over to the bottom left.

Restaurants use this to their advantage. In the upper righthand corner, they will place their most expensive items or “anchor items.” Then, the rest of the items will go down in price as you scan.

Coming up, this is how even the little things like music and lighting can change how much money you spend.

Music Can Affect How Much You Spend

music playing in restaurant cellist in toronto
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One of the most subtle psychological tricks that restaurants will use on their unsuspecting customers is to play certain music. British researchers studied how background music affects money spent in restaurants. Their studies showed that classical music will make people spend 10% more than when pop music like Britney Spears is playing.

The researchers believed this was because classical music has all sorts of connections to sophistication and wealth, while pop music seems more “common.”

They Avoid Adding Dollar Signs

restaurant menu franceschetta no dollar signs
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Have you ever noticed that the fancier restaurants will simply put a number at the end of a menu item without a dollar sign? That’s because a dollar sign is a symbol that you’re about to spend money. People might be more inclined to order an item if they just see ’12’ instead of ‘$12.00.’

Cornell University did a study that showed people are more likely to focus on the dining experience instead of the price when there are no money symbols presented on the menu.

Cheap Restaurants Won’t Use Round Numbers

cheap restaurant menu no round numbers
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One of the more common psychological tricks is to price items down by one cent. Instead of seeing $10.00, reading $9.99 makes it seem like a bargain. Cheaper restaurants and chains will employ this same tactic for all of their items.

You won’t see penny amounts in fancier restaurants though. High-end spots will price out their items in a more simple fashion because they figured if you’re already there to eat, you won’t care how much you spend.

Pictures Can Make Or Break A Decision

restaurant menu pictures pancakes
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Pictures on a restaurant menu can have a really positive, or really negative, effect on your decision. Pictures can be used to draw your attention to a specific item and usually, the items featured are the ones that turn the most profit. The pictures might also be used to show off a menu item you’ve never heard of before.

It doesn’t always work out that way though. For cheaper restaurants, adding pictures can set expectations that might not be realistic.

Different Portion Sizes Are A Win-Win For The Restaurant

supersized meal restaurant mcdonalds bracketing
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Some restaurants will give you the option to choose between two sizes for a dish. Most people choose the smaller portion because they think the restaurant is just trying to get them to spend more money. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

Restaurants offer two sizes in the hope you choose the smaller one because there is a better profit margin compared to the raw materials used to make the dish. This is one of the oldest tricks in the restaurant books. It even has a term: “bracketing.”

The Fewer The Options The More Money You Spend

restaurant sign more options anxiety
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There are some restaurants, like The Cheesecake Factory, that have flourished with huge menus and tons of options. But most of the time, that’s not the case. Studies have shown that too many menu options create a “paradox of choice” and can give people anxiety that they aren’t making the right decision.

Instead, menus specifically limit options. By having fewer than seven menu items per category, it’s been proven that diners are more relaxed and their wallets are, too.

Ethnic Names Make Dishes Sound More Authentic

olive garden pasta fancier name
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Restaurant-goers tend to try dishes that seem more authentic or sound like something they couldn’t make themselves. Menus will try and play to this weakness by naming a relatively simple dish the authentic, ethnic name. It’s especially common in restaurants that bill themselves as serving authentic Italian or French cuisine.

For example, you might be more inclined to order a dish titled “Tagliatelle con Pomodoro fresco” instead of what it really is, which is just noodles with tomato sauce.

Boxes And Borders Highlight High-Profit Items

boxes in menu restaurant tricks
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Restaurant menus will often put a border or box around certain sections of the menu. It might seem like it’s just an aesthetic choice but if you look closely, they’re really using a box or border to highlight items they really want you to order.

Often times, it will be the higher-priced items in the box or ones that will turn the restaurant a higher profit. If you look outside the box or a section without a border, you’re likely to find a better deal.

Restaurant Lighting Can Change How Fast You Eat

dim restaurant lighting slows dining
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Similar to the way music can change how you feel while you eat, the lighting in a restaurant can do the same. Brighter or dimmer lighting will change how fast a person finishes their meal. Restaurants with bright lighting tend to have higher turnover with guests.

Those restaurants with dimmer lighting tend to create a more relaxed mood. When you’re relaxed you eat slower, spend more time in the restaurant, and overall spend more money.

Brunch Specials Are Money-Grabbing Tricks

brunch menu combine lunch prices with breakfast food
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There are a million reasons to love brunch. Who doesn’t love to eat breakfast food at a time when it’s also socially acceptable to drink? Restaurants know that brunch is a favorite for people and they use it to their advantage. From a restaurant’s perspective, it gets to charge people lunch prices for very inexpensive breakfast foods.

The biggest brunch menu money-grabber? Mimosas. They may be delicious but it’s just mixing concentrated orange juice with the cheapest bubbly available.

Menus Are Designed To Avoid Comparisons

Chalkboard menu, sponsoring a basketball team and selling the jerseys
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Another tricky way that restaurant menus make you spend more is by avoiding writing prices in a format you could easily compare them. The biggest no-no a restaurant can do is line up every menu item on a single page and put all the prices in a column. That allows the diner to quickly compare every price and look for the cheapest.

Clever restaurants will put the prices off-center and all over the place so it’s harder to keep track.