America’s Fascination with Menus

It seems that Americans can’t get enough of their restaurant menus.  I’ve already written a couple of posts about how we go to great lengths to preserve them, Vintage San Francisco Menus and New York Public Library Archive Project.  But, a study by a Stanford computational linguist goes a step further in analyzing word choice as it relates to cost.

Language of food

Dan Jurafsky analyzed menu collections, restaurant reviews and conversations to come to a final conclusion: "The more expensive the restaurant, the longer the words on the menu, on average.”

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Dan Jurafsky, a linguist and author of the book "The Language of Food," reads the menu at Root & Bone. Credit Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Jurafsky found that for every extra letter in the average word on a menu, the dish cost 18 cents more. Additionally, words like "exotic" and "spices" increased the price of a dish, suggesting an appeal to a more affluent and adventure-seeking diner.

In an interesting twist, menus at inexpensive restaurants used more personalized words like "You," "Diner's Choice," and "Have It Your Way." Finer dining shifted their menus' focus to the chefs, with "Chef's Special" or "Chef's Selection."

Jurafsky is a former MacArthur award winner for his work on how computers reveal the thought patterns underlying human dialogue. You can read more about his menu analyses at the links below: