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:
Why did you increase the price of dinner to $195? Are rising food and labor costs involved? I raised the menu to $195 because I’m not ready to raise it to $225, which is what it should be. That would give Benu more standard industry margins. Are labor and food costs involved? Of course, but they´re two of many costs that are increasing at a pace much higher than what the public is ready to pay for these kinds of restaurant experiences.
How has Benu’s menu evolved as you’ve increased the prices? Am I wrong in noticing that the online menu appears a course or two longer than in the past? The menu has evolved tremendously. In the terms of length, I personally don´t think it is a good or accurate measure of value, but yes, it has increased. I think the more significant ways we have evolved are the refinement of food and products, service, and dining room.
Previously you offered an a la carte menu on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. How have guests responded to Benu becoming a tasting menu-only venue? It was our guests who lead us to change our program. When I first opened Benu, I had intended for it to be a more casual restaurant and I thought the a la carte menu would be what most guested opted for. But it was obvious from day one that people saw Benu as a destination, special occasion restaurant.
We were preparing a large a la carte menu everyday and most people ordered the tasting menu. So last year we started to only offer the a la carte on the weeknights, but as that trend continued, we decided to offer only the tasting. This helps us focus and consolidate our efforts and resources on what most of our guests are ordering, and I think that allows us to offer better quality and value.
Have you ever considered adopting the European-style service-included pricing of The French Laundry (where you worked as chef de cuisine)? Some argue such policies can help reduce the income disparity between front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house, while others are skeptical whether a restaurant can remain competitive by going service-included unilaterally, because of the risk of service staff defections. That´s the business model of the restaurant I worked in for nearly a decade. So yes, of course I’ve thought about adding a service charge. But many American diners aren’t ready for service compris and I´m sensitive to that. We´re not the French Laundry. We´re a small, still relatively new restaurant and we can´t model our pricing policies after institutions that have been around for 15+ years.
And yes, I think it does help balance the income disparity between boh and foh, but because of the other argument you mentioned, the disparity will still remain large and illogical. For me, the biggest thing that´s overlooked is that California does not have a tip credit*. I´m shocked at how restaurateurs don´t mention this every chance they get. You emailed me to ask me about a $15 increase to our menu, but if we had a tip credit like New York, I could probably lower our menu by $20. So comparing boh/foh income disparities between restaurants in New York and ones in San Francisco is impossible. I think it´s ridiculous that we don´t have a tip credit here, and is an example of disconnect and ignorance in government, and also how our industry is still widely uninformed, un-unified, and immobile (Corey Lee).
*Editor’s Note: Waiters in most states make the tipped minimum, which is lower than the federal minimum because those workers make up the rest of their pay through gratuities. In New York the tipped-minimum is $2.25 for food-service workers, while the regular minimum is $7.25 for full-wage workers. But in California, there is no tip-credit, which means waiters must typically earn the full state minimum of $8.00. And in San Francisco, where the full minimum is higher, all waiters must earn at least $10.55.
The only states or territories without the tip-credit are Alaska, California, Guam, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Coi in San Francisco, the two Michelin-starred tasting menu joint that might have the best-looking restaurant website in the world, has raised the price of its menu by $10 to $175. Wine pairings are still $105. That means the REAL COST of dinner for two at Coi, after tax and an 18% service charge, is now $451, or $721 with wine pairings.
Chef Daniel Patterson was kind enough to chat with us via email about his price hike, which he says is partly a result of the fact that he’s paying his staff more. He also talks about changing the menu to an eight-course tasting, down from eleven, and about the ongoing debate over tipping and service charges.
Here’s what he had to say:
The last time we spoke, you mentioned that doubling the staff count at Coi, along with food costs and renovations, led to increasing prices from $155 to $165. What led to this latest increase to $175? We haven’t raised our prices in 2 years, and in the meantime, our food and labor costs have gone up a lot. It’s basically just a normal price adjustment. Part of the increase in labor is that our team has been with us a while, so i’m paying them more. The customer benefits from this, as it leads to better trained cooks making more consistent and delicious food.
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.
The New York Post today runs a story contemplating the price of an $18 carrot entree at Northern Spy Food Company, an ambitious American restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village. Here’s what the authors write:
“Even Bugs Bunny would balk. This is what New York dining has come to — $18 for an entree of three roasted carrots…the nouveau rabbit food costs more than a 6-ounce filet mignon at the Old Homestead Steakhouse in the Meatpacking District.”
Alright. Let’s take this one step at a time. First of all, if we’re comparing the price of an expertly sourced, prepped, hay-roasted vegetable to the price of a piece of meat that some guy threw over the broiler at a Meatpacking District restaurant that rarely holds court in contemporary culinary conversations, then we might as well declare New American dining to be dead and restrict our feeding to a Beefsteak Party at the local Knights of Columbus.
Second of all, where were all the complaints when The NoMad was charging $20 for carrots or $24 for asparagus? Probably didn’t hear many gripes because those preparations were pretty spectacular. And where were the tirades against the Michelin-starred Tulsi, where five of the seven vegetarian entrees are $18 or more? Must one balk at the $295 vegetable tasting at the three Michelin-starred Per Se?
That’s all another way of saying this conversation is getting a bit silly. For those who’d like to read more about the price of good greens and the like, you might consider the comments of David Kinch (the chef at Manresa in Los Gatos) on how “it’s not cheaper to cook vegetables.” We’d also point you towards our interview with Daniel Patterson of COI, in which he had some clever things to say about the price of forest lichens.
If lichens are your sort of thing. Which we’re gonna say might not be the case.
Prices at many of America’s most expensive restaurants went up by $20 or more in 2011. Says who? Says our first annual Fancy Pants Menu Price Index. You’re welcome.
Of the 46 prix-fixe menus tracked by The Price Hike over the past 12.5 months, the median price increase was 10.55%. The highest increase came from the three Michelin-starred Brooklyn Fare, where diners might pay a 107% premium over last January’s price of $135 per person. The 30-course menu is now $225, with a $70 charge for bringing your own wine. Previously there was no corkage fee.
Excluding wine, the year’s biggest price increase came from Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, which hiked its tasting menu to $160, a 68% increase from last year’s starting price of $95.
Eleven restaurants, including Torrisi, boasted price hikes of 20% or more. Fifteen venues kept their increases below 10%, including Per Se, Daniel, Craft, Stone Barns, Le Bernardin, Alinea and L2O. Prices stayed EVEN STEVEN at a number of venues, including Adour, Momofuku Ko, WD-50, Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park, Shaboo, Masa and the Top Chef Tasting at Bartolotta. Restaurants instituting price drops included Colicchio & Sons and Jonathan Benno’s Lincoln.
Please keep in mind that many restaurants added courses and luxury items as they hiked their menus; Brooklyn Fare and Atelier Crenn are chief among that list. So many of these hikes weren’t necessarily “more money for the same amount of food” propositions. Refer to our individual postings for more details on each hike. NOTE: This post was updated on 18 January 2012 to reflect the inclusion of Atelier Crenn.
COI, Daniel Patterson’s tasting-menu only restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach district, has increased the price of its eleven-course dinner menu to $165, up from $155 earlier this fall, and up from $145 earlier in 2011 (Menu historians will note that COI charged $125 in 2009 and $115 in 2008).
So after COI’s 18% service charge and 8.5 percent San Francisco sales tax, dinner for one will cost $211.24 before wine, or $346 after the $105 optional wine pairing. For two, that’s $422 before wine, or $692 after pairings.
Is COI a still a BUY at these prices? We’re inclined to say, yes, it is a BUY, based on positive reports we’ve heard about Patterson’s California cuisine. The two-Michein starred chef was nice enough to speak with The Price Hike via email about rising labor costs and eating forest lichens.
Why did you increase prices to $165 this month? Presumably because of rising food/labor costs? We raised our prices for a number of reasons, but labor is the main one. We’ve doubled the size of our staff since we opened, and now have a ratio of about 1 employee to every 2 diners. Also we have significantly remodeled the restaurant, so the dining experience has improved in that regard. And various costs of doing business, including food, have risen.
Why has COI’s price increased over the years? The COI menu has always been priced inexpensively for what it is. Even now, we are one of the lowest priced restaurants in our category in the world. In our area, Manresa is $175, Benu is 1$80, saison is now $198-$498, etc. So while we have raised prices over the years, those prices have always been below market. That extends to our wine markups, also very low for our type of service-intensive restaurant. How has COI evolved? The restaurant has evolved tremendously since we opened in 2006. The style of cooking has become more precise and distinctive, the food tastier. Our ingredients have gotten better. Our staff has gotten better (which necessitates that we pay them more), and more of them. We have reinvested hundreds of thousands of dollars into decor and new kitchen equipment, which makes the dining experience more pleasurable, and the kitchen better equipped to produce increasingly technically difficult food. As we have increased the quality of the experience and taken on more costs, we have had to raise prices accordingly.
Why has COI’s price increased over the years? The COI menu has always been priced inexpensively for what it is. Even now, we are one of the lowest priced restaurants in our category in the world. In our area, Manresa is $175, Benu is 1$80, saison is now $198-$498, etc. So while we have raised prices over the years, those prices have always been below market. That extends to our wine markups, also very low for our type of service-intensive restaurant.
How has COI evolved? The restaurant has evolved tremendously since we opened in 2006. The style of cooking has become more precise and distinctive, the food tastier. Our ingredients have gotten better. Our staff has gotten better (which necessitates that we pay them more), and more of them. We have reinvested hundreds of thousands of dollars into decor and new kitchen equipment, which makes the dining experience more pleasurable, and the kitchen better equipped to produce increasingly technically difficult food. As we have increased the quality of the experience and taken on more costs, we have had to raise prices accordingly.
COI is a vegetable-focused restaurant, non? Chef David Kinch from Manresa had some very insightful comments recently about the cost of vegetables. I thought pehaps you’d like to offer your own thoughts about vegetable costs (or perhaps about sugars & grains as well). But I wonder if the question of value itself should be examined a bit. There are commercially available ingredients that we use that can be quite expensive, like abalone, which costs over $100 a pound. We use a lot of vegetables, but we also use the best meat, poultry, eggs we can buy, all of which has been going up in price. But what about the value of wild plants, like when we go into a forest and find a certain kind of lichen, and bring it back and spend hours cleaning, boiling, dehydrating, and grinding it into a powder with which we encrust the beef, and it tastes amazing, like black trumpet mushrooms and truffles, how do you value that? How do you value ingredients that no one else has, that don’t exist on the commercial market? The simple answer is that is takes a great deal of labor to cook like that, but you still have to have the idea in the first place. I think that part of our value is cooking food that can’t be found elsewhere.
Statistically speaking, any upward price move, even by a dollar, will probably cause a restaurant to lose certain clients and gain others. Can you tell me how your clientele has changed as you’ve increased your prices over the years? We’ve been very lucky, in that we’ve always been well supported. Our customers have grown with us, and have kept coming back, over and over, all through the economic ups and downs, and our business has grown each year. I would say that the price increases have not had any effect on business, but the reasons that the prices have increased - the things that have also increased quality- have helped business a lot. We work very hard to keep constantly improving, and we value very highly the emotional connection we have with our guests. I think in the end that’s what matters most. (Daniel Patterson).