Whether it’s designing the menu with psychology in mind, cutting corners or making up wait times, restaurants have their secret ways to get you in the door, to spend more money, and to leave more quickly.
Here’s a little peek behind-the-scenes — exposing a few secrets restaurant managers and staff use — so you can make more informed decisions when dining out.
14 restaurant secrets
These tips come from Urbanspoon — an online local restaurant guide that aggregates reviews from professional food critics, bloggers and diners — and the book The Digest Diet by Liz Vaccariello, editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest.
1) Menus are designed to get you to spend more.
Our eyes have a natural tendency to look at the right side of the menu first, so restaurants usually list their most expensive dishes in that area. Some restaurants put their most expensive items at the top of the menu, so other items will look more reasonably priced. Shaded boxes and borders around menu items also attract hungry patrons and can increase sales.
2) Upscale restaurants have fancy menu designs for a reason.
Menus that list prices in a neat column down the right side allow customers to compare prices and pick cheaper items, so fancy restaurants will put the price immediately next to the dish — in the same cursive font as the description — so it is harder to distinguish each item’s price. Leaving the dollar sign off of the cost also prevents patrons from focusing on money.
3) Drink up!
Restaurants like to serve you cocktails before you even crack open your menu. Why? Because alcohol stimulates your appetite. Get your drink on before you order, and you’re more likely to end up ordering more — and probably less-healthy food to quiet your now-growling stomach.
4) The less busy we are, the worse your service will be.
Employees take advantage of a slow restaurant by getting their side work done early and playing around with coworkers. They’re not on a fast-paced routine like they are on a busy night, so they forget to check in on the tables they do have as often.
5) Where you sit can make you eat more quickly.
When you’re seated, you may find yourself in the awkward middle of the dining room, or perched in uncomfortable chairs. Both of these maneuvers are likely to make you want to shovel in your food more quickly, eating more calories as you go.
Remember, if the hostess leads you to a table you’re sure you won’t enjoy — such as one next to the restroom, for example — it’s okay to request a better location and take your time eating in comfort. Seating the customers is an art form, with VIPs and the pretty girls at the front, and couples put at the back.
6) We know more about you than you think.
Whether you avoid eye contact and pleasantries or are a chatty Kathy, waiters have insight into your personality before you even order.
That overly nice male customer? He’s probably on a first date — or even out with someone who’s not his significant other.
And, your waiter also knows that those “allergies” you cite with your order are just as likely to be overly dramatized claims to ensure an offending food stays off your plate.
Ever wonder how your favorite restaurant comes up with that 50-minute wait time? Many restaurants put their least experienced employee at the door, and best guesses are made based on the average customer dining time and restaurant environment.
But hostesses everywhere know the real story — wait times are often arbitrary.
8) We turn up the volume.
You know how you practically have to shout at some restaurants in order to have a conversation? It’s not because the restaurant owners just happen to love music. Studies show the louder the tunes, the more quickly you’ll eat — and the sooner you’ll leave. That means a faster turnover and a higher profit for the restaurant.
While you may not even notice how quickly you’re throwing back that burger, your belly will suffer. It takes 20 minutes for the “I’m full” signal to get from your stomach to your brain, so those loud tunes mean you are more likely to end up overstuffed.
9) Those specials don’t come cheap.
Your server may wax poetic about the day’s special, but understand that they may be incentivized to do so. Specials are often designed to drive higher check averages, with larger tips and managerial prizes await those who sell them to diners. Alternatively, Vaccariello says that sometimes the ‘specials’ are only special because restaurants are desperate to get rid of them.
10) The second cheapest bottle of wine is usually marked up the most.
Restaurants realize that many people won’t order the least expensive wine (no one wants to look like a cheapskate!) so they often go for the second cheapest. That’s exactly why it’s often the most marked-up bottle on the list.
11) Your half-empty bottle of wine won’t be poured down the drain.
Instead, leftover wine (still in the bottle) will often end up being served by the glass to patrons the following evening or given to the kitchen to make vinegar.
12) Hold the lemon.
Sliced lemons for water and iced tea are often kept, usually unwashed, in a container by the kitchen’s exit. Waiters and bussers will grab the lemon slices with their bare hands; studies have shown that up to two-thirds of restaurant lemons are contaminated with bacteria.
13) “Homemade” doesn’t mean what you think.
Sure, that homemade dessert might actually be homemade — just not necessarily in the restaurant you ordered it from. And homemade dressings? Those can be store-bought, with one or two added ingredients to make them seem fresh.
14) Ordering coffee at night? It’s probably decaf.
When a customer orders regular coffee and the restaurant is out, chances are high that they’ll get served a cup of decaf. It’s time-consuming to start and wait for a pot of coffee, so staffers pour what’s available. Since many restaurants only brew decaf in the evening, it’s even more likely that you’ll get the switch.