It would be interesting to read Alison Pearlman’s May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion side by side with a book by another L.A. writer, Jim Heimann, such as May I Take Your Order? or Menu Design in America. They’re all about how restaurants present themselves and their food.
There’s a lot to the subject. Being particularly dependent on impulse, the restaurant business is renowned for its riskiness. People hate risk, and they naturally try to reduce uncertainty by any means they can think of.
But it’s hard to do. Restaurant owners complain to me that they can never get a good sense of what diners think. (When the waiter asks them how the meal was, they hardly ever give a useful critique — they just say, “It was fine.”) And of course it’s even harder to figure the people who have never come to your restaurant. So restaurateurs may go to biz school or hospitality management school or read academic studies, or more likely a journal such as Nation’s Restaurant News, in the hope of getting a handle on the mystery.
Pearlman has read a lot of those studies, and she’s not necessarily impressed. She makes it clear that lot of them are just blowing hopeful smoke. She has fun comparing all the experts who confidently declare what area on the menu, for instance, is most persuasive, blithely contradicting each other.
In any case, persuasion may be more than a menu design can really accomplish. In one study, some diners were given menus with illustrations of meat on them and others got menus showing fish. The diners who got the fish menus ordered fish significantly more often. Apparently they had come to the restaurant without settled ideas on what they were going to order and the fish illustrations suggested an alternative they hadn’t considered. But the diners who got the meat menus were unaffected. What we have here is mere suggestion, for those who are momentarily suggestible.
Another thing that distinguishes Pearlman from the academic studies is that she has done an impressive amount of shoe-leather reporting, based on visits to a whole lot of L.A.-area restaurants from the fast food level up through casual-family to hipster bars and staggeringly expensive tasting menu places — all on her own dime, apparently, something I always award points for. And finally, she does not come from a biz school or sociology background but from art history, so she has a keen eye for aesthetic elements. I was a restaurant reviewer for about 30 years, but I actually learned a few things from this book.
May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion, Alison Pearlman. Chicago: Agate/Surrey Books, 2018.