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Hold the Heirloom Tomatoes

How menu design gets you to run up a big check

Getting wise to the tricks of "menu engineering" can save you money when you enjoy a meal out. A restaurant's menu is often deliberately and strategically designed to get you to order up the big bucks.

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Woman holding menu - restaurant menu's subtle tricks promote choosing more expensive items

Save money on your restaurant bill with tips on how to read a menu. — Photo by Getty Images

Here are four ways to read it:

  • Avoid the upper right. The people who design menus often put the highest-profit items in the upper right corner of a menu, because that's the first place your eye goes.
  • Look past the boxes. Pricey signature items may be highlighted in a box, circled or otherwise surrounded with fancy type to offset them from the rest of the menu and grab your attention.
  • Recognize buzzwords. Trendy terminology is a tip you're being charged more. "Heirloom tomatoes" will cost more than regular ones, and anything described as "artisanal" will add bucks to your bill.
  • Add the dollar signs back in. One study found that eliminating dollar signs on a menu reduced the "pain of paying" for the dinner, even though the price was the same. A dish listed as "12" seems cheaper than "$12."

Also of interest: Save money at the supermarket. >>

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist who specializes in personal finance.

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