The next time you dine out, take a close look at the menu—even if you already know what you want to order. The reason? Restaurants have learned a thing or two about convincing their customers to spend more money on certain dishes.

"The use of menu engineers and consultants is exploding in the casual dining arena and among national chains, a sector of the business that has been especially pinched by the economy," explains Sarah Kershaw in an article at The New York Times. "In response, they are tapping into a growing body of research into the science of menu pricing and writing, hoping the way to a diner's heart is not only through the stomach, but through the unconscious."

Here are some tricks of the menu-writing trade that Kershaw shares:

They make prices as inconspicuous as possible. The use of dollar signs and prices ending in .99 tend to remind diners they're spending real money. Replacing $8.99 with a streamlined 9 can actually downplay the outlay, Kershaw suggests: "This is a friendly and manageable number at a time when numbers really need to be friendly and manageable." 

They place expensive decoys at the top of the page. A few entrées priced at $30 might exist for the sole purpose of making $20 entrées appear more reasonable. "[R]esearch shows that diners tend to order neither the most nor least expensive items, drifting toward the middle," Kershaw reports.

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