6 Tricks Restaurants Use to Get You to Pay More

We all know how steeply restaurants can mark up drinks, but we often aren't aware of other ways they encourage additional spending. Knowing their tricks can help you save more while knowing you're taking care of your taste buds and your wallet.

Photo: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Whether you love weeks wrapped up with fine dining or prefer long, indulgent brunches to start your Saturday, there’s nothing quite like eating out. However, we all know that those meals can start to add up. Make your wallet a little happier next time you go out (and save money for extra trips to your favorite restaurant!) by knowing tricks restaurants use to get you to pay more.

1. They know their numbers.

Many restaurants eliminate dollar signs on the menus. A study from Cornell University found that this encourages people to buy more, as it removes negative associations of spending money. Sometimes prices will be written out as words (i.e., ten dollars), which may have a similar effect. Of course, there’s an art to the numbers you choose, not just how they’re presented. Prices that end in .95 or .99 are often seen as friendlier to customers. (Save some cash by cooking your go-tos at home, like this Olive Garden-inspired chicken and gnocchi soup.)

2. They distract you with decoys.

Perspective governs menus, so it’s not uncommon for restaurants to garnish one with an over-the-top, overpriced dish. While they don’t think it’s likely you’ll order it, it will make other dishes seem like a steal in comparison—even if it’s more than you’d usually spend on dinner. Populating a menu with more expensive offerings also creates the sense of higher quality, which creates a feeling of satisfaction after eating. (A way to feel truly satisfied? Chowing down on this zucchini and pesto pizza.)

3. They dabble in poetry.

Or, at least, they draw on beautiful language to entice you. A study from the Cornell Food & Brands Lab found that the more detailed the descriptions, the more likely a customer will buy food. Telling customers what they’re about to eat gives the sense of getting good value, and detailing the sensory experience is a testament to the power of suggestion. Diners are more likely to feel pleased after eating—and since 70 percent of customers are repeat, restaurants want to make sure that they feel pleased enough to return.

4. They’re not afraid to use the power of nostalgia.

Sometimes restaurants will try to encourage you to order particular dishes by evoking memories of childhood meals. They’ll often connect food to family, using names like Grandma’s Chicken Soup to suggest feelings of warmth and comfort that might make you more likely to order it. (Really craving Grandma’s Chicken Soup? This recipe is a close second.

5. It’s all about ambiance.

Think the background music at a restaurant is just a Spotify playlist put on shuffle? For restaurants in the know, a music selection can play a key role in encouraging diners to spend more money. According to a study from the University of Leicester, playing classical music creates a sense of wealth, making customers more likely to opt for more expensive options than usual. (Bring fine dining into your home with these skillet steaks.) Color can also come into play. Because different tones can conjure different moods, restaurants may opt for reds and yellows, said to stimulate appetite. Depending on the environment the restaurant wants to create, they may opt for something like blue or green, which can make you feel more relaxed.

6. They limit your choices.

Mo’ food choices, mo’ problems—at least according to a study from Bournemouth University. The sweet spot? Six menu items per category for fast food, and seven to 10 per category for nicer establishments. Sticking with this number means that guests won’t default to something they know by virtue of being overwhelmed; instead, they might be more likely to sample something new, and more expensive. (But that shouldn’t stop you from having choices at home. We recommend adding these salmon quesadillas to your repertoire.)

Restaurants rely on a variety of tricks to encourage spending, but knowing what to look out for can help you avoid unintended extra costs. Because we know that the only thing that food always tastes better with is savings on the side.

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