I'll Have That Typeface on the Menu

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It's no secret that the cost of a restaurant dish tends to mirror its complexity. That's why a menu item that says "medley of berry conserves and pureedpindas " is likely to cost five times what it would if it were just called peanut butter and jelly. But it turns out that obscure menu terminology may be just half the game. A new study suggests that typography also plays a role in influencing diners.

In a paper that will appear in the October issue of Psychological Science, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz suggest that small changes in menu fonts can significantly alter people's perceptions of dishes' complexity and value.

"People infer that if something on a menu is difficult to understand or hard to read that it takes great skill and effort to prepare," says Song, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan. "When I go to an expensive French restaurant, I can hardly pronounce the words on the menu, so I take for granted that it's expensive because it's not comprehensible."

Similarly, Song says, using an offbeat typeface to obscure a dish's description may signal hidden value to an unsuspecting diner on unfamiliar ground. That may explain the implicit logic employed by restaurants offering exorbitant entrees described with elaborately scripted fonts in microscopic print.

"My father carries a flashlight and has been known to set napkins on fire trying to read the words on his menu," says Richard Foss, a California restaurant critic who has launched a service called Menu Repairmen. Foss cites Elizabethan fonts and old-German typefaces as egregious examples of hard-to-read styles used by pubs to signal authenticity.

Minuscule menu print has become so commonplace that some restaurants, such as Eleven Madison Park and the Union Square Cafe in New York City, offer reading glasses for guests who need them, in the same way other restaurants offer dinner jackets. They do so not because their menus are poorly designed, which they are not, but because some guests, particularly those with declining vision, have grown accustomed to using reading glasses in dim light for menus with fine print. In Baltimore, an eye-care firm launched a program called MenuMates providing upscale area restaurants four pairs of reading glasses in a wooden recipe box.

To conduct one of her experiments, Song compared the responses of subjects exposed to menu descriptions typed in a simple Arial font with responses from those exposed to identical dish descriptions in a harder-to-read Mistral font. Subjects in the latter group were more likely to conclude that the dish was hard to prepare and required great skill.

Rather than looking at menus from around the country, the researchers created their own examples of easy and hard-to-read type and analyzed subjects' responses. The experiment was limited in its sample size, and the researchers focused primarily on the psychological effects that lead people to draw conclusions based on font style and presentation. Song says that based on her findings, she might recommend that if restaurant owners want to give consumers the impression that their food is complex and of special value, they should consider styling their menus accordingly.

Not everyone agrees with that point of view. "Using fancy fonts and small print may suggest that you're sophisticated, fancy and highbrow, but also pretentious and unapproachable," says Aaron Allen, founder and CEO of the Quantified Marketing Group, a restaurant design and marketing company based in Orlando, Florida. Allen says he recently boosted a barbecue restaurant's sales 17% recently just by making its menu typography more readable, not less.

Allen recommends using sans-serif fonts and few capital letters. He instructs managers to draw diners' eyes to the most profitable items on a three-panel menu by positioning those golden dishes in three key places: the center of the middle page and the top-right and top-left corners, which he calls the sweet spots. In addition to avoiding bad translations, Allen says chefs should use simple language when possible.

Anne Burrell, star of the new Food Network show Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, says she's likewise wary of intentionally abstruse menu language. "I find that the more intricate a menu description is, the more disappointing a dish usually is," says Burrell, Mario Batali's longtime sous chef on Iron Chef America. Burrell takes the same low-key approach to typography and design. At Centro Vinoteca, the New York City restaurant where she is executive chef, Burrell uses all lowercase letters in a basic Garamond font. "I prefer to underpromise and overdeliver."