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.
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.