Benu, a two Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant that’s famous for its faux-shark’s fin soup, has raised the price of dinner by $15 to $195. So a meal for two, after tax and tip, will now cost $502, or $888 after wine pairings — quite an auspicious number! All-in-all it’s a modest 8% hike. Also, Benu now no longer offers an a la carte menu.
The $195 prix-fixe is more or less in line with what other two-Michelin-starred restaurants in The Bay Area are charging for long tastings. Coi is $175; Atelier Crenn asks $180; Manresa is $185; Saison is $248. And $195 is also what Atera charges in New York, as does Blanca. Will Guidara and Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park used to ask $195, but recently HIKED its price to $225, which is what Benu would like to charge, as we’ll learn below.
Benu’s chef-owner Corey Lee was nice enough to chat with us about his new pricing, about his decision to go tasting menu-only, and the debate over tipping. Here’s our conversation, which took place over email on Thursday:
“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.
It’s now illegal to sell foie gras in California. Restaurants who don’t comply face a $1,000 penalty. And while local officials themselves have expressed doubt over whether the engorged duck liver ban ban will actually be enforced (per a report by Bloomberg News), high-end restaurants don’t appear to be risking the ire of animal rights activists, or the swift hand of the law.
Benu, Corey Lee’s two Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco, has switched out the duck liver on his a la carte menu in favor of monkfish liver. And since gastronomes haven’t yet found a way to perform gavage on aquatic creations (though I’m sure it’s in the works), the monkfish liver is 100% legal. The fish foie is $14, down from $2 for the more expensive duck liver. The tasting menu remains at $180. No more foie gras long xiao bao on that 17-course monster (per the Benu website), instead diners will get chicken liver steamed in sake with caviar, green apple, radish and brioche.
Of course, we’re keeping a STRONG BUY on Benu and are curious about the prospects for a third Michelin star in the fall (Editor’s Note: Benu always offers its tasting menu, while the a la carte selections are only available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays).
“Rising food cost is only one of the many things that are getting more expensive in operating a restaurant.”
Says Benu Chef Corey Lee, after The Price Hike asked him about managing increased costs. He goes on: “We are already an expensive restaurant so we can’t just pass those costs on to our guests. The Healthy SF Tax is a prime example of that. We absorb that cost; we do not apply it to the final bill as many SF restaurants have decided to do [editor: that charge is up to 4%]. For us, we try to become more efficient in our operations so we can maintain our overall margins. For example, we now do all of our own accounting in house, handle our own PR, run our own payroll, etc.” RIGHT ON, opines The Price Hike. As we reported
earlier today, Benu recently hiked their tasting menu to $180 from $160.
Benu, an ambitious Asian-inflected restaurant in San Francisco’s SoMa district, has raised the price of its tasting menu by $20 to $180, a 12.5% increase from the $160 price that the restaurant had been charging earlier in May. This isn’t a “same food for more money” proposition because the new menu has upped the course count to 18 and because Benu also accommodates guests requesting shorter, more affordable tastings. Chef-Owner Corey Lee, who helped guide Thomas Keller’s French Laundry to three Michelin stars, explained these changes last week via e-mail to The Price Hike: