When you go to a restaurant, you look at the menu and order a dish based on your preferences. You have your own tastes, certainly, and those tastes determine what you choose. You make your own decisions about what to eat. Most customers think that this is the end of the story.
But like grocery stores are designed to maximize your purchases, and survey questions can be written to sway your answers, restaurants can influence what you decide to eat. Of course, you are the one who ultimately places an order. But every step along the way, the restaurant is trying to nudge you in a certain direction. Chefs may have a menu-ful of possible meals, but every chef knows what they want their customers to order- for financial, culinary, or inventory management reasons.
There are signals and clues that the restaurant is trying to nudge you in a certain direction, if you know what to look for. Here, I outline the three general methods American restaurants use to influence your order, and whether you should listen.
- The Server
Most professional servers will greet your table just as you are settling in, before you’ve had time to look at a menu and make ironclad decisions. There will be an opening speech- a note of welcome, perhaps a bit of probing to find out your dining history at this restaurant or the occasion of the evening. The server will then probably walk you through the menu or highlight specific recommendations or specials.
This opening speech and introduction to the menu is where the server is most overtly trying to nudge you in the direction they want you to go. The best servers, at the best restaurants, will actively try to steer your meal. Servers are your most direct link to the kitchen, and they will pass on more useful information than the menu does. You may think that the halibut looks delicious, but had you noticed it, before your server gushed about its addition to the menu?
There may be forceful recommendations, or overenthusiastic suggestions, but the server is ultimately trying to point you toward a good (or expensive, and good) time. They may be reciting crowd favorites that are proven to please, or they may be judging your table dynamic and calculating your presumable budget. They may also be acting on a chef’s orders, to sell as much quail as possible tonight, because he or she accidentally ordered a double shipment this week and needs to sell it this weekend.
Trust that your server is not trying to bamboozle you, or point you toward bad food. If they seem open, and communicative, take their suggestions. They want you to be happy. Content, happy customers make serving a rewarding job, and also help ensure a rewarding paycheck. No matter the manipulation, at the end of the day, the server is trying to make sure that you have a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
- The Specials
The server has probably mentioned any specials in his or her opening speech. These featured dishes may be called seasonal offerings, a plat du jour, or a nightly special, but they are not on the regular menu. And they can be difficult to decipher.
Most of the time, at high quality restaurants, the special features an unusual ingredient, a product that is either extremely seasonal or too expensive to put on the menu regularly. Specials can be an adventurous and rewarding way to try something new, with limited availability. Some chefs create specials because they soft spots for certain dishes, even if they don’t make much money. Other chefs celebrate limited quantities of special products by only featuring them for a few days. If you trust the restaurant, and the chef, the special is probably going to be a more interesting meal than the standard house favorites.
However, specials can also be a way to unload product that is about to pass its prime. Anthony Bourdain famously revealed the secret to the masses in Kitchen Confidential, but restaurant workers have known for years: no one is getting in a fresh shipment of fish on a Monday. That half-price Monday night sushi special is all leftover fish from the weekend that the restaurant is trying to sell before it goes bad. And an unexpected “chicken stew” is probably made from the not-sold pre-cooked Saturday birds. Restaurants need to do this, to cut down on food waste and food costs. A dinner special, even though it uses the restaurant equivalent of leftovers, may very well be good. But if you aren’t sure about a kitchen’s commitment to quality, skip the special and go for a trusted favorite.
- The Menu
When the server is gone from your tableside, you are left with the menu. Here, too, there are layers of influence.
Look at the layout of the menu. At some restaurants, certain dishes may be highlighted to stand out- they may be bolded, boxed, or labeled as house specialties. These are the dishes the chef is trying to steer you toward, because they are house classics, crowd favorites, and, most likely, because they make the kitchen a decent profit margin (We all want to think that a chef is putting out food as an artistic endeavor, for the glory of the culinary arts. They may be. But, also, the chef needs to keep the lights on.)
However, there are far subtler ways to influence a customer’s order. In the most stereotypical American restaurants, dishes are usually sold by a featured protein, accompanied by some vegetables, starches, and sauces- think braised lamb, on a bed of lentils and greens, or seared prawns, with a spicy tomato sauce and grits. Most customers tend to notice the protein first, then the rest of the dish second.
When chefs are trying to influence the amount of a certain dish sold, they can adjust the accompaniments to the proteins. Say a chef makes a high margin on the steak dish, and wants to sell a lot of it over the weekend. The chef can pair the steak dish with the most popular sauces and vegetables- some creamed spinach, and fingerling potatoes, for example. Or, say on a Tuesday before a shipment arrives, a chef needs to deter a lot of orders of the fish that was very popular over the weekend. He or she can pair it with an unheard-of but still-delicious broth, and an unfamiliar vegetable. Fewer customers will order it, ensuring that the dish doesn’t need to be embarrassingly taken off the menu.
Chefs can also adjust prices, inflating or deflating the menu price. The menu cost of a dish is usually based on a food cost percentage, but it is a general rule. Some dishes can be sold at a high price to cover for an expensively-made but cheaply-sold plate, or a poorly selling dish can be made more popular by dropping down the price by a few dollars relative to similar dishes (more on food cost and meal price at a later date).
Believe it or not, experienced chefs can usually guess what dishes will sell, when. They know that you are ordering your dishes based on description first, and taste later. They adjust and tweak their menus according to their own culinary ideas, undoubtedly, but they also tweak the menu to suit their financial or inventory needs. The menu contains all of this information, if you know where to look.
I am either obnoxious, or valuable, dinner company, when I point out these nudges at a restaurant. There are no hard or fast rules of influence, and restaurants vary in their attempts. This is not meant to be an exposé, or a condemnation. Of course restaurants are trying to sell you something. You are buying their product, and they are feeding you. It’s a relationship- there is give and take, suggestion and compromise, prompting and prodding.
But once you learn some of the basic rules, you can see that nudge coming.