There's a good reason that plate of Chili's baby back ribs tasted so subpar following those delicious Southwestern egg rolls: According to science news site EurekAlert, a recent study at Drexel University's Center for Hospitality and Sport Management in Philadelphia found that "a comparatively good appetizer could make people enjoy the main course less than if it were preceded by a mediocre appetizer."
The study was overseen by assistant professor Jacob Lahne, who "specializes in sensory evaluation, or the part of food science dedicated to understanding human sensory responses to foods." Here's how Lahne conducted the study:
Lahne tested and analyzed subjects' hedonic (liking) responses to a main dish of "pasta aglio e olio" (pasta with garlic and oil) after they had either a good or mediocre bruschetta appetizer. The good bruschetta was made with extra ingredients like balsamic vinegar and lemon zest, as well as fresher and better quality ingredients, like extra virgin oil and fresh basil compared to the blended olive oil and dried basil in the mediocre bruschetta. The result? The good bruschetta was judged better than the mediocre bruschetta, but the pasta dish was liked more when preceded by the mediocre appetizer. One possible explanation for this result is that the very nature of the appetite-whetting first dish sways the consumer to compare it with the subsequent courses, to the latter's potential detriment.
Lahne consulted a real chef to pick the dishes the ingredients involved in the study, and the test subjects were customers at the school's student-run restaurant. The study was aimed at chefs rather than consumers, though it's not exactly clear what action restaurants could take to capitalize on this bit of information — saving their best tricks for the main course, perhaps? Also unclear: Do mediocre appetizers make subsequent mediocre appetizers taste better, as in the case of TGI Friday's infamous unlimited mozzarella stick offer?