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 Restaurant at Meadowood still has California’s most expensive menu, at over $900 per person with wine pairings. But Saison in San Francisco is suddenly a strong second-place finisher, with 5% reservation fees to boot.
Dinner for two at Saison’s Chef’s Counter, after tax, mandatory service and optional beverage pairings, will now cost $1,281. That’s a $285 or 29% jump from the March price of $996 for couples. Solo diners pay $641 with pairings, a $143 increase from $498.
Those are pretty big hikes. And here’s what’s more interesting: Those prices reflect a reservation processing fee charged by SeatMe.com.
Allow us to explain: Chef Joshua Skenes’ two-Michelin starred spot has switched to a “pre-paid ticket” system, similar to Next in Chicago or Brooklyn Fare in New York. This change was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and others in late February.
In the past few days, The Price Hike has obtained a little more clarity on pricing. The weeknight dinner menu remains at $198 for 16-courses, with a wine pairing at $128. Weekend guests (like at Next in Chicago) will pay $50 more for the same menu, and $20 more for the wine pairing. Call it a “rush hour” fee of sorts.
Those who wish to dine at the four-person chef’s counter will pay $298 for 20-22 courses, any day of the week, with optional pairings at $188.
The full price of dinner, service and tax, is paid for, in advance, through SeatMe.com. The website charges a 5% processing fee, according to a spokesperson for Saison. That means a part of two purchasing the $298 Counter Menu will pay $800 upfront, including $36 in fees (about the cost of dinner at Mission Chinese).
So much for the old theory that taking the receptionist out of the equation helps keep the cost of dinner down.
A technical point here: Wine pairings are purchased at the restaurant, not online, which means they aren’t subject to SeatMe.com’s 5% fee. Of course, the pairings are levied with an 18% service charge and local sales tax.
Saison should be commended for allowing guests to purchase wines at the restaurant, not just because it cuts down on the processing fee, but because it gives the consumer the option of deciding how much booze to drink on the night of the reservation, as opposed to a month in advance. We at The Price Hike believe that’s a GOOD THING.
But reservation fees will be more controversial. What say you, people of earth? Are Saison’s higher prices, along with SeatMe.com’s reservation fees, a BUY HOLD OR SELL?
When your expense account administrator asks why you spent so much more money entertaining clients this past year, respond, in a firm voice, that food prices went up just about everywhere. And there’s no sign things will change anytime soon.
So send over this list to Human Resources, pop open a magnum of 1996 Dom Ruinart and thank The Price Hike for saving your job. Our advice is free, but if you want to messenger us some black winter truffles, that’s okay too.
This is where you spent more money in 2011 and early 2012. The results are in no particular order; for more data-driven analysis, see our Fancy Pants Menu Price Index.
1. Brooklyn Fare: now $225 per person, up 67% from $135 in last January. Corkage, formerly free, is now $70 per bottle. So after tax, two bottles of wine and 20% service charge, dinner for two is now $720, a de facto hike of $372, or 107%, since last January. The formal wine list is still being worked up.
2. Daniel: The three-Michelin starred chef hiked his eight-course menu to $220, up 7.32% from $205. His six-course menu rose to $195, up from $185. Quite frankly Boulud could sell endangered ortolans at $500 a pop in front of the ASPCA and New Yorkers would still buy them.
3. Joel Robuchon: The most Michelin-starred chef in the world, who’s now designing chicken teriyaki menus for underperforming Manhattan restaurants, hiked the 16-course tasting at his Vegas flagship to $425, up 10.39% from $385 in the beginning of 2011. Robuchon is now only $25 less than Masa, the country’s most expensive restaurant.
4. Per Se: Thomas Keller’s service-included restaurant hiked its two tasting menus from $275 to $295 just after the New Year in 2011, a modest 7.27% hike. But still, $295 is a tough psychological price point to swallow. Will Per Se rise to $310 or higher anytime soon?
5. Noma: the two tasting menus at Rene Redzepi’s avant-garde bastion of Nordic cuisine rose to 1195 DKK and 1495 DKK, a 100 kroner hike (so, $19 USD or so). As reported by Eater.com, reservations for an entire month can be snatched up within hours.
6. Torrisi Italian Specialties: Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, after keeping their tasting menu EVEN STEVEN at $50 for over a year, hiked the menu 20% to $60 this fall, a price point that’s also effective during lunch. The boys also launched a $125 tasting menu. Reservations are now accepted via OpenTable.com, so no need to line up at 5:00pm.
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.
Eating out on New Year’s Eve is expensive. Restaurants issue set menus by fiat and hike their prices. The markups are partly an intangible emotional play: you’re paying more because you and your significant other don’t want to be alone when the clock strike’s midnight.
But you’re also paying more because you’re getting more. Restaurants on New Year’s like to throw in live bands, free champagne and luxury ingredients into your (mandatory) tasting menu-extravaganzas.
Take Eleven Madison Park. The New Year’s Eve menu includes live music, one course of white truffles, two courses of black truffles, foie gras, lobster, black sturgeon caviar, and many more freebies. This all costs money. Precisely, it costs $575 per person, or $1,482 for two after tax and optional 20% tip.
Compare that with Eleven Madison Park’s typical starting price of $125 per person, or $322 for two after tax and tip.
So is NYE at Eleven Madison Park a BUY? Probably, but it’s also a lot of money. That’s why THE PRICE HIKE is doing a bit of math for you. We’re showing exactly how much you’ll spend after tax and tip on New Year’s Eve at a handful of ambitious (and expensive) restaurants in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Napa Valley and Sydney. The prices are for “second-seatings,” which means you’ll theoretically be partying at the restaurant when the clock strikes midnight.
We’re also calculating exactly how much MORE you’ll spend at these restaurants on New Year’s Eve than on a typical night. Eleven Madison Park and Daniel have the highest upcharges; Paul Liebrandt’s Corton and Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney have the lowest. These aren’t criticisms; these are statistics. We want you to know how much dough you’ll be dropping. And we like to believe you won’t have anything less than an absolutely awesome time at any of these restaurants.
Alinea: Regular price: $210 for 18-courses. Real cost for two after 20% tip and 11.5% Chicago sales tax: $567. NYE Price: $350 for ten “surprise” courses with luxury items. Real cost for two: $921. How much more you’re paying: $354.