10 meaningless phrases restaurants use on menus to justify high markups

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Eating at restaurants is a tricky business. Not only do you have to be conscientious of menu markups ($32 for dried pasta in jarred pesto?), but you also have to read menus with a little skepticism. 

Remember that a majority of chefs are also businesspeople, eager to sell as much perishable, and hopefully delicious, product as they can serve out of their kitchens. If you hadn't noticed, plenty of menus are layered in flowery, unnecessary language your high school English teacher would have crossed out with a red pen. An April 2007 study in the Journal of Physiology found that diners at a prix-fixe dinner enjoyed the exact same wine more when it was called a "California" wine rather than a "North Dakota" wine. Researchers chalk this up to the power of suggestion — and the way that certain words elevate your overall expectations and experience. 

The next time you see these words on a menu, take them with a grain of artisanal salt. 

Decode that menuSource: lithian/Shutterstock
Decode that menu  lithian/Shutterstock

Artisanal 

Sure, you may envision a pack of wizard bakers in the kitchen kneading artisanal bread loaves for every $7 bread basket, but the word is overused and has pretty much lost all meaning. Ever seen artisanal canned products at Costco? You definitely have. When in doubt about the artisanship of any menu item, ask where it's actually made. A University of Illinois study found that descriptive labels, be it for "grandma's soup" or any other food that has a charged word attached to it, helped increase sales by 27%. So next time you order the $14 artisanal cherry pie, consider if you'd want that pie if the same adjective wasn't in front of it. 

Imported

Just because you're at an Italian restaurant doesn't mean that the imported pasta came from Florence. It could just as easily be from a New Jersey warehouse or a wholeseller based in China.

Local 

Skipping the imported goods for the local? Unless the restaurant you're dining at can list its purveyors and farms, it's okay to be wary of the "local" label. Some chefs will consider anything sourced within 100 miles of the restaurant as local. Others may consider anything from America to be local. The USDA has no official definition of what can be considered local, so read this word with skepticism. 

Hand-selected

What else would the ingredients be selected with? The chef's feet? Most likely, the restaurant's ingredients come from a purveyor, or multiple purveyors, and many hands (both human and robotic) have touched the fresh or processed ingredients before they were selected for your plate. Also hand-selected? Fast-food fries before they leave the hot grease and are stuffed in a cardboard takeout box are hand-selected.

Deconstructed

This sounds fancy, but it's really what happens when you bake a lasagna and it's too gooey and splatters all over your plate rather than staying in perfect layers. If you wanted deconstructed food, you could just sit at home and sprinkle ramen seasoning on some dried noodles. One big exception to this rule? Chef Massimo Bottura's famous "Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart" dessert, which embraces its accidental origin. 

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Premium

So if premium ingredients are just in this dish, what's in every other dish? Take special note of any premium product emphasized with a special font or illustration, as this may just be a menu design trick to steer you toward a profitable item. 

Authentic 

Authentic what? Food? Cooking? Just about anything can be called authentic without being completely incorrect. Authentic New York-style Chinese noodles? So authentic! A restaurant serving legit regional or foreign cuisine shouldn't need to show how authentic it is. Restaurant marketing materials also suggest adding authenticity to menus by using non-English words like "carnitas," so beware of any claims looking to boost authenticity of a certain dish or ingredient.

Curated

Oh, you're interested in the curated dishes on the menu? Guess what, diner? This entire menu was curated by the chef, and a special box pointing out a restaurant's specially curated dishes is either a marketing scheme or an accidental tip that maybe you shouldn't eat anything outside this special box of alleged curation. 

Clean

No, other restaurants aren't dirty (okay, some are), but this word used to describe food made without preservatives, additives or other weird chemicals is totally unregulated. Sure, it sounds healthy and nice, but health inspectors are the only ones who can properly deem a dish "clean." 

Anything in French

The French know that anything French is better and more worthy of being in our lives, but unless you're at a restaurant in France or a decent French bistro elsewhere, look out for the aubergineharicots vert and poisson listed on a menu — using the French words for eggplant, green beans, and fish don't make the ingredients worth more.