Getting a guest through the front door is half the battle. Bringing them back is what can make or break a restaurant.

A dizzying array of things can shape a guest experience, and inspire repeat business — from the food to the service to the bathrooms. But restaurateurs can overlook one of the biggest factors: the menu.

It’s not just about presenting the food and drink. Restaurant menus communicate what type of equipment and ingredients are used, and the qualifications that employees should menu

The average guest spends 109 seconds looking at a restaurant menu, giving you less than two minutes to attract your customers. A well-designed menu directs attention to the items you really want to sell. And there are psychological elements to designing a menu that restaurateurs need to keep in mind. For example, giving consumers fewer options, and creating decoy menu options, can lead customers to choose the restaurant’s preferred option.

When it comes to the psychology behind a menu, there are a number of different design tricks restaurateurs can incorporate in their menus that will have customers coming back for more.

Decrease the Pain of Spending Money

Studies show that people experience about twice as much pain from loss as they do pleasure from gain (people will feel more strongly over losing $100 than they will over winning $100). Overcoming the pain of spending is one of the biggest challenges restaurants face, but there are certain menu tips that reduce the discomfort guests feel when they spend money on a meal:

  • Ditch the dollar signs: Including dollar signs remind people about the money they are spending. The Cornell Hospitality report published a study that found restaurant guests spend less when dollar signs are included on the menu.
  • Don’t list prices in a column: Columns of prices encourage people to think about money.
  • Don’t include a row of dots leading to the price: Using these dots draws the customers’ attention to the prices and distracts from the food you’re actually offering.
  • Make it easy to use credit cards: Allow for customers to pay using a credit card, as it reduces the sense of loss that occurs when cash is used.

Use Buzzwords

Yeah, you might hate them. But buzzwords are essential for a successful restaurant’s menu. Au courant parlance like “artisanal,” “fresh,” “local” and “sustainable” convey current restaurant trends that are likely to attract customers. Whether it’s knowing that the pastries come from a reputable artisanal bakery or that the beef on the menu hails from a local farm 20 minutes away, guests are increasingly interested in learning about where their food comes from. When it comes to the menu, buzzwords play a major role in determining the type of guests you’ll be attracting to dine at your establishment.

80% of a restaurant’s food sales come from only 16% of menu items. How do you know which ones? The perfect menu is just a click away with Upserve's Menu Builder.

Design Your Menu

List the Most Expensive Items First

People typically read from the top of the list down, and often believe more expensive things are better, regardless of the actual value. By placing the most expensive items first, you provide an anchor to compare the rest of the items against. As a way to highlight the items you want to sell more of, particularly the less pricey, place a tasteful box around them to give them more attention.

restaurant menu

Include Decoy Dishes

Guests subconsciously order the top two menu items more than any other item, because they are paying such close attention to the top of the menu and have more of an attention span when it comes to the first several items. So, by including the most expensive menu item at the top, customers will feel as if all other menu items are reasonable.

Golden Triangle

Researchers that have analyzed eye patterns have determined that people read menus in a predictable pattern. These sweet spots depend on where people first look and where they finish when looking at a restaurant menu.  Typically, guests move their eyes from the middle of the menu to the top right corner and end on the top left, similar to a triangle. These areas inside the “triangle” of your menu need to have the dishes with the highest profit margin.

“The average guest spends 109 seconds looking at a restaurant menu, giving you less than two minutes to attract your customers.” – Jesse Noyes


Your menu is essentially in-house advertising for your product. With the right concentration and the right psychology in place, your restaurant’s menu will not only increase one-time sales, but passionate repeat visits all year long.

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Jesse Noyes is the former Senior Director of Marketing for Upserve. In past lives he’s been a dishwasher and then journalist for the Boston Herald and Boston Business Journal. He’s a sucker for ramen and an avid owl enthusiast.