Written to the song: Sweetener — Ariana Grande
“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” — Anthony Bourdain
My passions in life include food, travel and language. While reviewing a book for a linguistic magazine, I stumbled upon a review for a book called “the Language of Food” (I hopped in my car and instantly bought the book). This book made me reflect — how does the language you see on a menu shape the price of a restaurant?
You’re sitting at your favourite diner, pretending to look through the 150 options on the menu — even though you know very well that you are going to order the same thing you always do: eggs and toast. The waiter comes over, greets you, and asks you “how you like your eggs” and if “you prefer white or whole wheat toast”. This scenario is typical and there are already clear markers differentiating this restaurant from a fancy one.
Research reveals that at a cheaper restaurant, you have almost double the amount of food options than at a more expensive place. As well, the experience is more “customer focussed”, where the restaurant wants you to have a say in how you like your food, such as allowing you to pick your size of meal and giving you options, such as: “your protein of choice — chicken, beef or tofu”. At a higher-end restaurant, the menu emphasizes the chef rather than the customer experience, with words such as “chef’s choice” and “chef’s plat du jour”.
International languages, even if they don’t necessarily make sense in the context or aren’t correctly translated, are more likely to be featured on the menu of a fancier restaurant. Examples include featuring the Italian names of a dish before the English translation, and infusing French words on the menu. High-end restaurants are more likely to feature words such as “organic” and “farm-fresh” on the menu to discuss the origin of food, whereas less-expensive dining locations will incorporate the word “real” on the menu, ex: “served with real whipped cream”. At more expensive places, diners assume that all of the menu options are “real”, and menu writers usually only use this word when referring to maple syrup or crab.
On the menu of your neighbourhood favourite café you may see the short-form of words such as “app”, “sides” or “decaf”. At a Michelin star restaurant rather, you would see the full names — “appetizer”, “accompaniments” and “decaffeinated”.
Daniel Jurafsky and his colleagues at Stanford University performed a study to test if there’s a correlation between the length of descriptive words on a menu, and the price of a meal. Jurafsky’s team found that on average, restaurants charge an additional 18 cents per every letter used in a menu item description (oof, that’s spicy).
Finally, when dining at a low-key restaurant joint, look out for “filler words” on the menu — words which don’t have a specific concrete definition. These words don’t really have a reason to be featured on the menu, but are used to sway customers to select the menu item. Words such as: delicious, flavourful, crispy, golden-brown. Do they even have value when describing a food, or do they just sound good?
Whether it’s raving about the chef, or using filler words on a menu, next time you go out for dinner, be weary of the techniques used by menu writers to sway you to order something. To see if you can spot the differences between two restaurants, check out these two menu examples:
- Delicious chicken breast served on a bed of golden brown rice, with your choice of soup or salad.
2. Grass-fed elk burger, topped with caramelized onions au beurre noir, served on a bed of farm-fresh arugula with the chef’s dressing.
Enjoy your meal! (Save me some leftovers)
Jurafsky, Dan. The Language of Food: a Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.