The case of the disappearing menu prices

The menu at the restaurant Searsucker in San Diego.

Tess Vigeland: Going out to dinner never ends up costing what you think it will. Even if you know the menu, when the bill comes, there's usually sales tax -- an extra 10 percent here in California -- and of course, tip. Don't forget the pre-meal bar tab. And don't even get me started on the places that are so dark you can't see prices in the first place. But restaurants are getting even more creative in hiding cost from us.

Ashley Milne-Tyte has our report.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: Jason Kessler lives in LA and eats out at least three times a week. He's turned his habit into a gig: He writes a blog called The Nitpicker for BonAppetit.com. Recently, he's griped about prices. But it's not the amounts he objects to. It's the way those numbers are presented. First, dollar signs began to disappear from menus. Then numerals themselves became passe...

Jason Kessler: Some places will spell out the number.

Others get even more creative. He says take the popular west LA restaurant, The Tasting Kitchen. One of the features of the menu is the use of a small, typewritten letter "I" in place of the number one.

Last week, local resident Jake Munoz took a look.

Jake Munoz: Or is that... I don't get it, I can't understand it. They're using that as the one, I guess?

Jason Kessler says taking liberties with numbers puts diners at a disadvantage.

Kessler: If somebody is trying to switch the pricing scheme, it makes me look at the menu item a little differently. It maybe makes me pay attention to the price less if there's less information there.

That's the whole point, says Tom Pirko. He's a consultant to the food and beverage industries. He's noticed more menu design tweaks since the economic downturn. He says when a restaurant tosses numerals and dresses its prices in curling fonts, it's done partly to throw diners off. But it's partly to play to our egos.

Tom Pirko: What you're really looking at is this very subtle, intimate kind of bonding process where they can appeal to your vanity, they can make you feel that somehow you are connected to them. And if you do that they're gong to get you to order what they want and at the price they want.

He says it's all about controlling diners' behavior. Casey Lane is the chef at the Tasting Kitchen. He helped design the menu. He says its quirks are meant to provoke conversation between customer and server -- nothing more.

Casey Lane: We never want anyone to ever feel ripped off. And in the one instance, I can remember where someone genuinely was like, "I thought that this bottle of wine was $20," and it was a $120, we didn't charge him for it.

At least that menu has prices. Some food menus displayed outside restaurants don't list prices at all. Restaurants say they don't want to keep re-printing menus when commodity prices change. But Harry Balzer of the NPD Group says there may be a simpler explanation.

Harry Balzer: There's a real drive to be profitable just because going out to restaurants has been declining for... Well in the last two years, Americans have cut back at least 7 percent in their visits or their use of restaurants.

That's a couple of billion fewer restaurant visits each year. And restaurants know the less we know about price, the more we're likely to spend. Take the common tactic of not listing the cost of specials. Jason Kessler says he once paid $32 for a small special, a side dish of lobster mashed potatoes. Kessler says he never asks the price when it's not explicitly stated.

Kessler: I feel like when you're in a group of people, especially friends, and you stop to say, "Oh wait a second, how much is that?" It's akin to pulling out your wallet and counting how many dollars are in there, and I don't want to be that guy.

He says money is a private matter. But Tom Pirko says most of our reluctance to inquire about price has to do with why we go out in the first place.

Pirko: You're going to a restaurant to satisfy a hunger, but you're also going there for the experience of dining out, so you also want a good experience. You're prone not to be difficult.

That includes questioning a price. We just want to relax, and the restaurant is happy to let us. Until the bill arrives.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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