It's an ordinary piece of paper, laminated or slipped in a plastic sleeve. Often, it's a bit tattered and greasy.
But it's hard to overstate how important that menu is to a restaurant's success.
The headings, appetizer, entrée, and dessert are so familiar that most hungry diners probably never think twice about it.
But a restaurant menu is something quite extraordinary: a lesson in cuisine, economics, and human behavior.
"The menu is where it all begins in a restaurant," said Dr. Kevin Murphy, a professor at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
Relying on 23 years of experience in the restaurant industry, Murphy walked us through the surprisingly intricate process that restaurateurs undertake to develop a menu.
Menus begin in a test kitchen—even if that test kitchen is someone's home. Murphy said successful chefs can spend seven months or longer trying to pair the right flavors.
"Seven months is actually fairly quick," he said of the lab work.
Beyond taste, restaurateurs must balance their culinary pursuits against multiple challenges: supply chain reliability, their cooks' experience, and whether the dishes will make money.
Large chains invest huge amounts of money to ensure a menu is viable.
"Oh yeah, millions," Murphy said.
Renowned institutions, such as the Culinary Institute of America, provide consulting services to restaurants that need help cooking up a menu.
Beyond blending the right balance of dishes, Murphy said the menu itself, the paper, is key to a restaurant's success. He said a menu is "the number one sales, marketing, and merchandising tool in a restaurant."
With a target profit margin of 30 percent, the menu itself relies heavily on something surprising: psychology.
Murphy said diners' habits are largely predictable. And the layout of most successful menus taps into that knowledge—giving restaurants a roadmap to revenue.
EYEBALL ZIG ZAG
On first glance at the menu, consumers' eyes reliably snake in the same pattern, Murphy explained. Studies have shown it, he said.
Restaurants use this morsel science to their advantage, placing hooks in both the upper left and lower right of the menu—the first places we look.
IGNORING THE MIDDLE
Murphy says that when we get to a particular section, say appetizers, diners tend to consider the first and last items, then ignore the rest.
"You would look top, bottom," he said. The rest is filler, in a sense.
So, which items do restaurants place in those primo spots at the top and bottom?
"Your highest profitable things," he said.
Sometimes, menus have empty real estate—a lonely patch. But that's no mistake.
"White space is also another trigger," Murphy said, explaining that our eye is drawn to items that are cast off by themselves, perhaps in a neatly framed box. Those items, say the "Chef's Special" are often profit centers.
If it's pictured on the menu, it's probably a moneymaker, Murphy said.
"Those pictures cost a lot of money," he said—especially when large national chains rent studios, hire professional photographers, and food stylists to ensure the photograph is irresistibly perfect.
Murphy said the color of a menu speaks volumes about the restaurateur's intentions. Primary colors, like red and yellow, subliminally suggest high speed: diners will be hurried through their meal to make room for the next guests. Earthy tones, on the other hand, such as brown and green, hint that the restaurateur wants you to stick around—perhaps for a leisurely (and profitable) dessert.
"Restaurants that know what they're doing," he said. "They are going to design their menu to get you to buy certain things."
But even with his experienced palette and trained culinary eye, Murphy said some elements of eating out are not at all scientific.
"My wife is much better at ordering food than I am," he joked.