Does where you sit in a restaurant control what you eat?

Jan 23, 2015 at 8:00 a.m. ET

Whether you get stuck by the noisy door to the kitchen or at that one table that gets hit with a blast of arctic air from the front door, it's easy to see how where you sit might change what you eat. Still, where we sit may have a deeper, less conscious impact on the types of foods we order. It's strange, but it may well be true that the host or hostess who leads us to our seat could be changing the entire way we think about food.

When you go out, do you prefer a high top, a place by the window or a far table tucked away in isolation? Did you know that your choice (or the host's choice) of location can affect more than your ability to people-watch or enjoy the view outside? In fact, some pretty decent research out there (and some of our own observations) seems to show that wherever you get seated will ultimately influence what you eat.


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Perhaps the most overt influence location can have on ordering behavior is when guests are allowed to have "their" table. It’s natural for Americans to pick out a seat and declare it theirs by right of having their butt parked in it for an hour or so. This is as true of boardrooms as it is restaurants and can lead to patrons who get their table feeling more comfortable, and more comfortable diners tend to order extra.

A chair by any other name is still a throne

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You'll notice that regulars, VIPs and private dining areas often have different chairs than the main dining area. That's because commercial chairs are given a butt rating, which is basically the amount of time your butt can stand to be in the chair before it starts asking the waitstaff for a doggie bag. If you find yourself in a rush to get out without dessert or enjoying your food, it might be because your behind is shouting louder than your taste buds.

Eating to be seen

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While focused largely on weight loss, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life author Brian Wansink has some interesting thoughts on seating location and food selection. His research shows that people sitting at well-lit tables or near windows often tend to order more healthful items, which may very well be due to a feeling of being watched (and feeling that salads are more societally acceptable than fried chicken) or wanting to set a good impression.

Also, the data should show that diners who think they can be seen are less likely to order "out-of-character" items, like a macho man drinking a cosmo with a pink umbrella.

Eating to stay hidden

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Wansink shows the reverse to be true as well. Diners who sit in darker areas tend to order dessert more often and eat less-healthy options. Again, it's possible that with anonymity comes the "permission" to order what one wants over what one believes they should have.

Another pint with friends

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Bars, which are growing larger every year, can also affect what you order. Again, according to Wansink, tables closer to bars order more drinks. This may be because the bar is top of mind, or it might be that because drinkers are closer to the bar, it seems more normal to order additional adult beverages.

Game's on!

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Wansink also notes that tables closer to televisions tend to order more fried foods. There's some thought this might be because of television's ability to turn one into a mindless food-ordering zombie (Wansink puts it slightly more scientifically than that), but we think it's also due to the link between sports (which are often on restaurant TVs) and bar food. The association between the two could provide a subliminal craving for "sports food," which the diner then satisfies by ordering something fried.

The sizzle path

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The last thing to look out for is sitting near the kitchen in any restaurant that serves a sizzling dish. The theater of the sizzling plate dramatically exiting the kitchen, the sounds of the sizzle, the smell of the food and the hungry look on the lucky recipient are usually enough to persuade those near the plate to order the same thing. In fact, most kitchens know that once the first sizzling dish goes out, if you're close to it, you're going to see the plate and want it. They can then sit back and enjoy the run on their sizzling dish.

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