Is There an Epidemic of Tasting Menu-Only Restaurants? Not Necessarily.

  • Across the country, expensive tasting-menu-only restaurants are spreading like an epidemic…A high-end anomaly a few years ago, three- or four-hour menus now look like the future of fine dining.

So writes New York Times food critic Pete Wells in his largely skeptical take on tasting menu-only restaurants, an odd, albeit interesting world where meals last over three hours, where bread courses are dictatorially delayed until mid-meal, and where dining rooms are filled by “big game hunters,” eager to spend a thousand dollars per couple for the privilege of feasting at a trophy establishment. Instagrams of the now-closed El Bulli must be the ultimate taxidermy, non?

Smart eaters will read the NYT piece in its entirety because it’s a fine lament on an expensive & idiosyncratic slice of modern gastronomy.

But what I focus on here at The Price Hike are prices, and it’s Mr. Wells’ statement about this “epidemic” of expensive tasting menus that piques my interest, as well as another one of his musings: “I can’t feel good about watching great restaurants that were already serving an elite audience taking themselves further out of reach.”

The NYT critic raises good questions. As much as I love American Omakase spots like Alinea, Blanca and Brooklyn Fare, committing the necessary financial resources toward a pricey tasting (or dealing with the subsequent gastro-intestinal distress) isn’t exactly my regular brand of bourbon.

As someone who grew up in a Long Island family that shared everything at the table, the thought of three people getting the same three dishes over three hours is, on anything less than a special occasion basis, boring if not wasteful, which is perhaps why I often prefer to do tastings when I’m in another city (i.e. The Fat Duck in Bray) and when I’m alone (though in retrospect, my decision not to bring the woman I was once courting to The Fat Duck was a poor one).

Would I, as a 29-year-old in 2009, have taken my muse to The Duck if it was a few dollars cheaper? Sure. But it wasn’t cheaper.

So be it. Not every individual restaurant has to be accessible to every individual.

And the proliferation of expensive tasting menu-only restaurants (whose prices, like any eatery, will only increase) doesn’t bother me because the good people behind those restaurants typically find some way to offer lower priced options.

Sometimes those budget menus come in the form of lounge offerings, as Mr. Wells points out; or, as I’ll point out, sometimes they come in the form of slightly more affordable sister restaurants that also offer ambitious fare and excellent service.

Look at Blanca, the $180 spot that opened this summer in, shiver me timbers, Bushwick. Sure it ain’t cheap, but the parent restaurant next door, Roberta’s, serves small (and large) plates from $12-$27, almost none of which are any less elegant than anything served at Blanca. And I can’t think of a single occasion here where the level of coddling at Roberta’s was subpar.

And yes, Eleven Madison Park only offers a $195 menu in its current incarnation (however ephemeral). But just a few blocks away sits the fashionable NoMad, where, in a civilized environment, diners can sample some of EMP’s greatest hits from an a la carte list; the suckling pig candy bar, king crab tagliatelle and foie gras with tete de cochon were once mostly confined to the prix-fixe affair at EMP. If anything, those dishes by Chef Daniel Humm are more accessible now than they’ve ever been.

Corey Lee’s Benu, mentioned by Mr. Wells, restricts itself to a tasting-menu-only during the weekends (at $180), but it’s worth noting that the San Francisco spot offers a $16-$42 a la carte menu Tuez-Thurz (it’s closed Sun-Mon).

Per Se, normally $295-$685, has an a la carte lounge where diners can sample items from the main menu, and while prices are high (about $46 for a few bites of rib cap), those prices include service, (sometime multiple) amuses, petits fours, and a killer bread basket. Brooklyn Fare ($225), in turn, is working on an a la carte spot when it opens a Manhattan branch in the near future.

And while a $500 meal for two at the tasting menu-only Next in Chicago might not seem like a value to some, it is to me as Grant Achatz & Nick Kokonas’ more formal spot, Alinea, will easily run you well over $1,000 for two. Meals are a bit shorter at Next too.

I’ll further add that Kokonas and Achatz deserve credit for selling cheaper tables in the off-hours. Alinea tickets can spike as high as $265 during prime times, but I’ve never had a hard time finding occasional $185 or $200 seats. Perhaps this is sign of fine dining becoming slightly more accessible, non?

Of course, there are expensive outliers. Stand-alone spots like Meadowood ($225-$500), Urasawa ($375), Coi ($165), Atera ($165) and Saison ($198-$498) really don’t offer “K-Mart outlets” next to their tasting menu “Tom Fords.” But again, I like to think (perhaps incorrectly) that those are outliers.

So I wouldn’t characterize our post-crash proliferation of tasting-menu restaurants as an epidemic. It’s just another wrinkle in our increasingly diverse world of food.

If anything, given the vigor of our so-called “budget-gourmet” movement, the number of restaurants where gastronomes can get bespoke food at off-the-rack (if not necessarily fully-discounted) prices is stronger than ever. Just walk into Empellon Cocina, Mission Chinese, Torrisi Italian Specialties, Gwynnett St or The Breslin and you’ll see what I mean.

Or look at it another way: As opera, dance, theater, film and journalism strive and sometimes struggle to adapt to the decreasing attention spans (and tight disposable incomes) of Twitter-addicted millenials like myself, it’s heartwarming that the culinary arts are having a boom of sorts in their expensive, long-form incarnations.

And let’s be honest, this whole tasting menu thing is a heckuva nicer than the plague of big-box Asian restaurant that besieged New York before Bear and Lehman fell, yes? I ask that question somewhat rhetorically to those still reading this long-form Tumblr post.

You’re still reading, right?

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