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America eats out: A guide to ordering off menus

Love eating at restaurants? TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg has tips for navigating menus.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

This weekend marked the 25th annual Food and Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen. Each year the town (population 6000) welcomes 5,000 more people to sample the food and wine of america’s top chefs and restaurants, wine and cheesemakers, ranchers and growers. Consider it the G-8 summit of foodies. and TODAY Show Travel Editor Peter Greenberg was there, and filed this report:

Americans are eating out more than ever, and they’re spending more than ever before. Consider this: the nation’s935,000 restaurants should hit $537 billion in sales this years, only the second time in history that sales will exceed half a trillion dollars.

This means that the average American adult will spend nearly 48 per cent of their food budget in restaurants.

And some American cities are positively addicted to eating out. Houstonians eat out more than four times a week. So do folks in Atlanta. And they spend money. The average per person restaurant tab in New York City (the highest in the U.S.) is nearly $40. But hold onto your wallets: in Tokyo and London, it jumps to more than $70 per  person.  And that doesn’t include wine. (But more on that later)

One of the reasons the tabs are up has something to do with menu psychology. Smart chefs (or their menu consultants) know that when most of you open a menu, your eyes go right to the top of the page. And, armed with that knowledge,  chefs place the menu item that will give them the most profit at the top of the page. (And hence, it soon becomes their biggest seller). Then, your eyes normally drift to the center of the page. And that’s where many chefs place their absolutely most expensive item. But they do that not because they expect you to buy that item, but because the psychology of menus indicates  you’ll  probably then look at the items immediately above and below the high ticket item and order one of those. Again, those two items rank second and third for generating profits.

The next time you look at a menu, take a deep breath and actually look around the menu. You – and your wallet – will be glad you did.

Then there’s the subject of wine. When the movie “Sideways” came out in 2004, it almost single-handedly created a boom in sales for  pinot noir. Merlot took a beating, and Pinot sales soared 18 percent. Does this mean you have to follow the trend? Absolutely not. Be a contrarian. There are now some excellent (and moderately priced) merlots on the market as a result.

But when eating out, should you order the house wine? It’s a grey area, because at many restaurants, the choices have been traditionally limited to one brand of white and one red. Not much imagination there. But a growing number of restaurants are offering a choice of different house wines by the glass. These are usually moderately priced, quality wines and you should definitely try them.

Last but not least, there’s a growing trend towards serving locally grown, sustainable produce, meats, and cheeses. The next time you look at a restaurant menu, ask where the lettuce, the cheese and the cured meats come from.  You might be surprised to learn it’s usually from within a 100 mile radius of the restaurant. And it’s a win-win situation: it supports local farmers and ranchers, and you get to eat fresh.

Not long ago, if you ordered cheese at a restaurant in Boston, it came from either Wisconsin or France. Not anymore. Today, it’s just as likely to come from within Massachusetts.

And some chefs have actually bought their own farms, because they want a guarantee of locally grown, fresh produce. You’ve heard of the terms carnivore and herbivore. Get ready for a new one: Locavore – people who want to eat from the region they’re visiting.

Last but not least, there’s dessert. And this is where it can get tricky. Nearly everyone claims to be concerned about extra calories. And now, as a result, a number of restaurants have redesigned their menus to offer “bite-sized” desserts. It sounds good, but here’s the caution: do you want one relatively large piece of coconut custard pie, or a bite sized portion, served on a plate with other small slivers of fudge brownies, strawberry tart, and crème brulee? The bottom line, both in terms of price and calories, is bite sized doesn’t mean less expensive or fewer calories. There, you’ve been warned.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at .