A computational linguist reads the menu

Dan Jurafsky of Stanford explains how menu prose aligns with prices, and ensures that you’ll never look at ‘chef’s choice’ the same way again.

Ann Hermes
Plates of grass-fed beef are served to guests at the dining hall on J Bar L Ranch in the Centennial Valley, near Lakeview, Montana.

I’m going to take another pass at Dan Jurafsky’s buffet. Last week I was distracted by the Stanford linguist’s history of ketchup in his recent book, “The Language of Food.” The book’s subtitle, though, “A Linguist Reads the Menu,” was what first caught my eye. Professor Jurafsky and his colleagues have brought the power of computational linguistics to bear on restaurant menus.

“Every time you read a description of a dish on a menu,” Jurafsky writes, “you are looking at all sorts of latent linguistic clues, clues about how we think about wealth and social class, how our society views our food, even clues about all sorts of things that restaurant marketers might not want us to know.”

The first lesson is “less is more.” At the pinnacles of gastronomy, Jurafsky reports, you don’t even get a menu; the chef makes all the decisions. That’s the case at “San Francisco’s most expensive restaurant,” not otherwise identified: The staff will gladly e-mail diners after the fact with a list of the dishes they have consumed, and presumably enjoyed. But as far as consumer choice goes, you had more of it in the old days of the “chicken or beef?” query from the flight attendant as she trundled her trolley down the aisle at 35,000 feet.

Once you actually get a menu, higher numbers of options correlate with lower prices overall. Jurafsky cites the work of linguist Robin Lakoff in pointing out that inexpensive restaurants have, on average, twice as many dishes as expensive restaurants. And the more expensive a restaurant is, the likelier it is for an individual dish to involve a “chef’s choice” or a “chef’s selection.” Down-market, though, phrases like “your way” or “your choice” are more common. It would seem that Louie at the grill does not feel his creative impulses crimped if you ask for your eggs fried, with broken yolks.

But the minimalist menus of high-end restaurants can go maximalist with the prose. When there are just a few things on the menu, diners get to read a lot about them, sometimes down to the name of the farm the ingredients came from, and in the case of meat and poultry, the critters’ diet. Jurafsky reminds “Portlandia” fans of the episode in which two obsessive locavores pondering options in a restaurant impulsively drop their menus and go visit the farm where their prospective dinner was raised.

And it’s not just more words per menu item; it’s more syllables. Middle-market establishments offer “side dishes,” or “sides.” But high-end restaurants serve “accompaniments,” Jurafsky notes; and exotic foreign words abound. 

Jurafsky describes a study he and his colleagues did, using customized computer software, on the prices listed for 650,000 dishes in a data set of 6,500 menus. Controlling for factors such as type of food (steakhouses have different costs from pasta restaurants) and restaurant location, the researchers found that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 18 cents in the price of that dish!”

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