How restaurant menu designs influence what customers buy from you, explained with science

In many ways, it's a visceral experience. Sure, we eat to survive, but we also eat to socialise, to comfort, and for fun. It is with this in mind that I note that not all food is created equally. Those 50c instant noodles you ate as a poor student are probably not of the same calibre as the food from a Michelin Starred restaurant. Shocking, I know.

There are a number of factors that play into our perceptions of the food in front of us, and perhaps most notably is the aesthetics.

Aesthetics are critical in cuisine, and I’m not just referring to the food itself. Everything from lighting and ambience to the type of seating you’re on influences your perception of the quality of the food. A meal in front of the TV or in bed probably doesn’t have the same significance or novelty as a formal meal around the dinner table.

These same factors apply to restaurants. However, with restaurants, it really matters how customers perceive your food. A poor dining experience will often discourage customers from returning, and no one wants that to happen (Well, maybe your competitors do).

One of the most important elements of any restaurant is the menu. They’re one of the first things you look at when in a restaurant and, you usually need one to make your culinary decision.  It’s because of this reason that it’s so important to get them right. To make it easier for you, we’re going to break it down into three different categories on how to do your menus well, with science to back it up.

Optimise, mise, baby.

In a standard (full-service) restaurant or cafe, the average customer typically spends no more than 109 seconds studying the menu before they make a decision. Despite often claiming to the contrary, most individuals do not in fact read every item on the menu items before making a decision. This is typical because most individuals have some degree of a default option when they eat out.

Generally speaking, most researchers have found that when consumers scan a menu, their eyes tend to gravitate first towards the upper right-hand corner. Within the restaurant industry, this is otherwise known as the “Sweet Spot”. Consequently, a lot of culinary establishments place the items they want to sell the most, up there.

Secondary to this tactic is placing key staples directly below that top right-hand corner. First and foremost what this does is make every other item that succeeds appear much more reasonably priced. Secondarily, it makes the food appear of higher quality, meaning customers feel more satisfied when they leave. For some reason, higher prices equate to a higher perception of the food being served. For example in a New York study, economists from Cornell University gave participants an $8 buffet ($11 AUD) or a $4 ($5.50 AUD) buffet at an Italian restaurant. While the food was exactly the same, those who paid $8 rated the pizza 11% tastier than those who paid $4. Moreover, the latter group suffered from greater diminishing returns—each additional slice of pizza tasted worse than that of the $8 group.

Kiss. Keep it simple, stupid.

Lists are overwhelming. There are very few people in this world who look at a giant list full of things and think “this right here, this is the stuff”. A menu design with several dozen options under each category creates nothing more than a net-loss situation. Sure, some customers may appreciate all of the different options to choose from, but by and large, most will not. Additionally, more food options require greater diversity in stock, leading to a greater risk of spoiled stock if it’s not used in time.

“Consumers are overwhelmed and confused by all the designs on the market and the truth is, we don’t actually need the choice.”

Instead, try to limit the number of options per category to seven. Three may well be the magic number, but seven is absolutely the golden number. This is because much like little bears’ porridge, it’s just right. Not too short that customers feel they have too little choice, and not too long that they begin to feel overwhelmed.

When consumers feel overwhelmed they’ll typically default to an item they’ve had before. Sometimes this works in your favour, but more often than not, it doesn’t. If you’re trying to entice restaurant-goers with something a bit more expensive or encourage repeat customers (which account for about 70% of sales) it’s nothing more than an impediment. If you want customers to eat at your establishment time after time, make it easy for them to do so.

Whether you’re a speciality restaurant or a bistro, this strategy allows you to break your menu design up so that you can give your customers the illusion of choice without the stressful indecisiveness that comes with it.


Do you know the trick where cafes and restaurants omit dollar symbols from their prices on menus? Of course, you do, everyone does. In spite of this, the psychological effect it plays on still works. A 2009 study found that when food establishments included dollar signs on their menu, customers were less inclined to purchase the big-ticket items. Why? The dollar signs reminded them that they were spending money. Logically everyone knows that 23 is the same as $23, but for a lot of people, the irrational, hungry side of the brain just doesn’t see it that way.

Menus also need to be appropriate to the tone of the establishment. Over-sized laminated menus are typically found in low-budget establishments with a high turnover of customers (more customers means an increased chance that it’s going to be damaged/ stolen) and therefore result in a perception of poor quality and cheap foods. In contrast, a leather-bound menu printed on fancy parchment with stylised graphics is going to suggest ideas of premium quality and service.

It’s okay if your restaurant is cheap, we can’t eat $100 meals all of the time, it’s just important to make sure that your menu design matches the tone of the rest of your establishment. To give you an idea of just how powerful this perception can be, even McDonalds looks fancy when they use premium tactics like a well-printed menu.

Look, menus aren’t the only thing that affects how and why customers buy from your restaurant, but they do still play a pretty significant role. Effective design and branding are critical in all businesses, and this is especially true when it’s a sensory experience. If you want to increase your sales, your menu design is likely a good first place to look.