Unexpectedly Spending $700 on Dinner?

This week in my Bloomberg News column, I awarded three stars to Atera. The excellent and uber-naturalistic restaurant in lower Manhattan ranks alongside Blanca, Romera, and Tom Tuesday Dinner as what are likely the most expensive New York restaurants to have opened since Per Se and Masa debuted in 2004.

Up until recently, Atera’s starting price point was $150, with wine pairings at $90 extra. That worked out to $619 for two after tax and tip. 

Yes, that’s expensive, and justifiably so, because Chef Matthew Lightner has undoubtedly given us one of the best new restaurants of the year. But still, it’s not quite four star dining. There are a few issues with integrity of flavors — like a lobster roll with little lobster aroma, or a strip loin whose smoky overtones overwhelm the taste of beef. 

And more importantly, there are a few issues with price transparency. 

Unbeknownst to me, Atera raised its prices before my final meal last week. The tasting menu is now $165, while the optional wine pairing is $105, a $30 total hike, which can result in a $696 bill for two after tax and tip.

That’s $77 more than you’d have expected to spend for yourself and a date. 

So here’s what’s wrong: There isn’t a single food price on Atera’s website (though there is a full wine list). And the tasting menu, as of this evening, is still incorrectly listed as $150 on Menupages.com. Meanwhile, Atera’s Facebook page euphemistically lists the restaurant as “$50+”

Really, good luck finding restaurants that aren’t $50+ in Manhattan. 

In fact, you might not encounter Atera’s menu price unless you find a reservation on OpenTable.com and click on the “view terms” link, where the fine print tells you that you’ll be charged the full price of the tasting ($165) in the event of a late cancellation.

I was not entrepreneurial enough to click on that link. 

OpenTable, to be fair, is nice enough to email those terms of cancellation to anyone making a reservation. Too bad the menu price is listed in the final third of that 379 word email. Forgive me for not having scrolled to the bottom of that missive on my iPhone.  

And of course, the host confirming my reservation didn’t mention any prices either. 

Now, when you get to Atera, the excellent bartender might offer you a proper cocktail, though there’s no printed cocktail menu (as least not that I encountered over three visits), so you don’t realize the libations cost $15-$18 each. Order one for you and your date and all of a sudden your bill is now closer to $750. 

I couldn’t find a printed price for the wine pairing either. And unless you specifically ask, the sommelier doesn’t mention any numbers when you order that service, so there’s no way you’d know the price rose to $105. 

Yes, there’s something to be said for such non-transactional environments, which puts the focus on appreciating your (bland) pig’s blood cracker, instead of predicting your (large) dinner bill. But when your date costs over $77 more than expected due to a price change, I like to think it’s worth passing that information along to the consumer. 

We like to laugh at old stories about old restaurant whose menus supposedly omitted prices for ladies (or anyone aside from the host). But really, this situation isn’t all that different. 

For certain non-billionaires, the difference between how much we expect to pay for dinner and how much more we actually end up paying for dinner can directly affect our enjoyment of that dinner.

That’s why price transparency matters, and that’s why I started The Price Hike. And to be honest, I actually did find about these price increases a few hours before my meal. How’d that happen? By calling Atera anonymously as part of my regular price checking duties as editor of this Tumblr account. But really, it should be easier than that, shouldn’t it? 

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