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Psyching out diners: There's a method to menu design

The Baltimore Sun

Recently, my desk mate asked me why restaurant menus seem to have more misspellings than they used to. We talked about how off-putting that is. The same day, I read about research published by Cornell University suggesting that customers spend more when the dollar sign is dropped from prices on the menu.

Then there's this glossy magazine that keeps appearing on my desk, Flavor & the Menu: Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development.

In other words, when you sit down in a restaurant and open your menu, the fight for your heart and your pocketbook has begun. Eye movement studies, for instance, suggest people start reading at the center of a menu. Is the filet mignon listed there?

The psychology of menus can be as simple as putting a box around an item the restaurant wants you to order or writing luscious descriptions of the dishes.

Or it can be as subtle as not arranging the items from low to high by price. Customers are less likely to choose by cost in that case, said Rupert Spies, a senior lecturer at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, where a lot of restaurant-related research is done. "You want people to read the descriptions and pick according to taste, not price."

He also mentioned the "decoy theory."

"Put something highly priced," on the menu, Spies said, "and then [when the customer] goes back to the other things, they seem reasonably priced."

Theories tend to be supported by anecdotal evidence rather than solid research, but some menu designers think the first and last items in a list are the ones that are most memorable.

Of course, the psychology of menus is very different for a high-end restaurant as opposed to, say, a Denny's, where price - and therefore price presentation - is very important. (Using the old-fashioned odd-cents pricing, $9.99 instead of $10, still seems to work.)

It's not just a matter of type anymore, either. Spies thinks photos will be more and more common on quick-service and fast-casual menus as a way to sell quickly. And maybe eventually we'll see a tempting photo of a sizzling prime rib on the Prime Rib's menu. But what about those misspellings my desk mate was complaining about?

"It's one of my pet peeves, too," Spies said. He thinks it happens more frequently these days because the industry has moved away from standard descriptions of dishes to more poetic ones, listing suppliers and many more unfamiliar ingredients and techniques.

I'm not sure how that explains the "Potato and Caramelized Gratan" I saw on a menu recently, or the "marscapone" cheese.

LA DOLCE LELA The Towson traffic circle construction may have hurt some businesses, but not Sweet Lela's (3 W. Allegheny Ave., 410-821-5352), which replaced the Towson Delly this summer. (The delicatessen moved north to Lutherville.) Owner Antonio Iacampo laughed it off, calling it "Towson Circle Nascar," and said lunch is standing-room-only at his New York-style Italian cafe.

Sweet Lela's, named after Iacampo's 2-year-old daughter, is a full-fledged Italian deli, but also a coffeehouse and restaurant with white tablecloths on its nine tables. (That's nine tables counting the ones outside.) Full dinners with a new menu each week are served Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. The four entrees or so are priced from $10 to $20. Sweet Lela's meats, gelato, coffees and pastries are all from New York City.

"[My wife and I] built the place we wanted to eat at," said Iacampo, a New York native.

Hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

RAW SELECTIONS It doesn't seem likely, but is the part of North Charles Street north of Mount Vernon Square becoming Baltimore's version of Little Tokyo? You would think Minato, which moved north from the square, and XS, which provides breakfast and sushi pretty much around the clock, would be enough to satisfy the neighborhood's raw-fish cravings. But now Aloha Sushi has joined the mix, opening in the multistory storefront where Cobbers bar used to be.

Who knows? Pretty soon this stretch of Charles may be jockeying with Towson to become the sushi capital of the region.

NO. 2 ON THE WAY They aren't all chains. The 'burbs will be getting one more authentic, locally owned Mexican restaurant soon when a second El Nayar opens sometime in September. ("Hopefully," said Jose Venegas, a manager at the first El Nayar in Elkridge.)

The new El Nayar will be located at 801 Frederick Road in Catonsville. This one, said Venegas, will be more of a sit-down restaurant. Shrimp soup is the signature dish at the first El Nayar, so expect to see it as well as more usual Mexican dishes on the menu at the new place.

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