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From the Editor: What's on the Menu

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

Menu engineering: It’s a common term in the restaurant biz, but one unfamiliar to most diners. You might picture a Type A chef with a drafting compass and protractor going over the list of daily specials. Not quite. Rather, the term refers to a science that merges design, copywriting, and psychology to influence what ends up on your plate.

A few tricks of the trade that restaurateurs use: Forgoing dollar signs to soften prices; using outlandishly expensive items as decoys to make other items seem reasonable; placing the most profitable dishes at the top right-hand corner, the first place the eyes are drawn; adding mouthwatering descriptions (the “Black Forest Double-Chocolate Cake” will always outsell the “Chocolate Cake,” notes Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab).

Ingenious? Perhaps. Profitable? Unquestionably.

The point is that far more goes into your meal than you might suspect.

It starts in the fields. For farmers, genetic engineering has revolutionized the industry, for better or worse. Over the past several decades, Creve Coeur–based Monsanto has managed to bio-engineer a new breed of seeds that sees significantly higher yields than in years past. Jeannette Cooperman’s feature “Defending the Land” (p. 130), follows one Illinois family through the seasons, revealing the high-stakes game that rural families have played for centuries—but whose rules have changed dramatically in recent years.

Then there’s the taste—and color—of a meal. Sensient Technologies, an under-the-radar company on the near North Side, uses the slogan “We bring life to products.” What exactly does that mean? Its dyes, pigments, and colors (some natural, some synthetic) are closely linked to how we perceive food and drink. After reading “Behind the Rainbow” (p. 54), you may feel like you’ve just toured Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—if only it had a stricter dress code and forbade even those with golden tickets from coming inside.

These ingredients, and many more, contribute to the overall dining experience. For this issue’s cover story (p. 84), SLM’s restaurant experts ranked, ranted, and raved to compile the top 40 restaurants in St. Louis. Some are longtime favorites; others, newcomers. Dining editor George Mahe also assembled a moving portfolio of culinary masters and their mentors. And dining critic Dave Lowry highlights trends to try and trends to die.

As for the Dark-Horse, Come-From-Nowhere-to-Win-It-All establishment crowned the 2010 Restaurant of the Year? Well, you’ll have to read the rest of the magazine to find out.

We engineered it that way.

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