“You go into Carbone, and the whole thing is so fake…I went for dinner and I was embarrassed to be there”

Says Sean MacPheron in an interview with The New York Times. He’s the guy behind Waverly Inn, which sells $55 truffled mac & cheese to celebrities. He’s also the guy who’s allowing Tao, a Buddha-themed restaurant that sells $88 Wagyu ribeye to tourists, to open underneath his Maritime Hotel. 

So to be fair, the dude clearly knows a thing or two about fake. 

“For Brazilians seething with resentment over wasteful spending by the country’s political elite, the high prices they must pay for just about everything — a large cheese pizza can cost almost $30 — only fuel their ire.”
From an NYT piece in late July about the cost of living in South America’s largest country. So next time you think about complaining about that $58 strip steak at Minetta Tavern, think about Brazil’s crazy high prices, thousand dollar smartphones and otherwise. The culprits are transportation bottlenecks, dysfunctional taxes, and yes, inflation. 

Cutting Lines at Amusement Parks Is Legalized Bribery.4

Universal Studios in California lets you cut the line for a price, the New York Times reports in a story that’s more disturbing any NSA surveillance. Here are your ticket prices: 

  1. Cattle Class: $89. You’re screwed. Two-day admission. 
  2. Business Class: $149. Unlimited line skipping. One-day admission. 
  3. First Class: $299. Unlimited skipping, valet parking, luxury lounge, breakfast, lunch, hand sanitizer and an [expletive-omitted] poncho. 

I spent many a summer weekend looking for parking spaces with friends and family at Six Flags in New Jersey. We waited hours on roller coaster lines, and that was okay, because everyone else did too. We made conversation while we queued up. We played games. We met other families. There was no priority access. It was a classless system in our class-based society. Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin would’ve loved it. Standing in line for a ride is America’s way of saying: Wait your turn and you will be rewarded. 

Now Universal Studios wants to ruin that with legalized bribery, sanctioned line cutting (which they’ve actually been allowing for some time, apparently). And as I’m writing this I’m learning Six Flags has the same VIP experience too, at the same $299 price point. At least with priority boarding on airplanes everyone gets to China at the same time. Line cutting at amusement parks is like the rich guy bumping the poor guy off the flight to Beijing and shouting, “Wait for the next one!” This is an outrage and should be outlawed. 

“Single supplement. These two words strike dread — not to mention resentment — in the heart of a solo traveler. Consider for a moment the cost of a superior ocean-view room on a Royal Caribbean International seven-night Alaska cruise. For two adults, it’s $1,539 each. For a single traveler, the cost is $2,843 — an additional $1,304.”

Stephanie Rosenbloom pens a fun little piece for the New York Times about how singles are charged more on cruise ships, as most accommodations are priced for double occupancy. 

But here’s a different way of looking at things. If you’re taking your significant other on a cruise, it’s entirely likely that one of you is paying, and the other one isn’t, unless you want that to be your last cruise. Which means for couples the price is never $1,539 each, it’s really $3,078 for one of you. So perhaps Royal Caribbean could bill this as a single’s discount of $235. And can you really put a price on the peace of mind you get while being alone? 

Midtown Media Powerspot Michael’s Drops Price of $35 Hamburgular to $18, Son.

Jeff Gordiner of The New York Times today reports that Michael’s, a staple of midtown media power dining, is updating its menus with in vogue dishes like duck confit sliders, Korean fried chicken and — wait of it — SMALL PLATES. The changes come courtesy of chef Kyung Up Lim. But that’s not all folks. We at The Price Hike noticed that some of the prices have dropped by a few dollars or more. 

The Caesar salad, once $16, is now $12. The Long Island duck breast, once $38, is now $25. And the burger, which was $35 this past autumn, is now $18. Will these lower prices attract larger crowds, especially during dinner, when the room can be significantly less than full? We’ll see. And is Michael’s a BUY HOLD OR SELL with thee news dishes and prices? Your call world. But let’s recall Frank Bruni’s zero-star review from 2008:

  • "[Michael’s] certainly charges like a serious restaurant, levying a tariff of $35 for a lunchtime burger that’s not Kobe and doesn’t ooze foie gras. So it should perform at the level of a serious restaurant. These days, it usually doesn’t.”

BEFORE:

image

AFTER: 

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(second screenshot via New York Times

Americans Are Stealing Hay From Each Other Because It Costs Too Dang Much. No Joke.4

The New York Times reports on this disturbing trend, which pretty much threatens to upend all the civil and romantic notions we have of life in the America West. This societal plague apparently has a name too: Hay Rustling. Observe:  

  • "Across the West, ranchers, farmers and county sheriffs are grappling with a new scourge: hay rustling. Months of punishing drought and grass fires have pushed the price of hay, grain and other animal feed to near records, making the golden bales an increasingly irresistible target for thieves. Some steal them for profit. Others are fellow farmers acting out of desperation, their fields too brown to graze animals and their finances too wrecked to afford enough feed for their cattle."

There you have it. People are stealing iPhones in New York, and hay out West. 

Pete Wells on Why Restaurants Can Be More Important Than Post Offices4

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells makes a profound point about the importance of restaurants and fundraising in our post-Hurricane Sandy New York. Here’s what he has to say: 

  • A good restaurant can be more important to its neighborhood than the post office. I suspect that’s why so many people have been donating to the many fund-raising sites set up by flooded restaurants. I can’t think of many for-profit businesses that people would pay to subsidize without getting a direct return on their investment. But if the place where families go to celebrate birthdays just disappears one day, it can leave a big hole in the community.” 

What Wells is saying reminds me of the way society, particularly the wealthy, subsidizes artists. Whether through foundation-supported grants, or direct gifts from high-net worth individuals, artists depend on our support to do what they do. And I’m not just talking about buying their paintings or photos; I also mean simply giving them money, without the expectation of something immediate or tangible in return, because we know that doing so will let the artist continue his or her lifestyle, and hopefully make our world a better place. 

Sometimes, members of the culinary cognoscenti tend to think of restaurants in very transactional terms; just look at my blog, The Price Hike, dedicated to tracking the minute (and sometimes not-so-minute) price changes at restaurants across the U.S. You really don’t get more transactional than that, and I’m okay with that, because, well, that’s what I do, and we only have so much money to spend! 

But the reason this quote by Mr. Wells strikes a cord with me is because he’s encouraging us to contemplate the joy of restaurants in terms that transcend “I pay $58 for a steak and I get twenty-two ounces of USDA Prime in return,” or even, “I’m donating $500 to this GoFundMe account and hopefully the restaurant will give me a signed cookbook as a present.”

This quote is about restaurants not just as businesses but as community centers, places that make us happy for reasons we can’t necessarily put a finger on, and sometimes it’s hard to put a quantifiable price on that.  

“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.”

That’s me, Price Hike Editor & Bloomberg Food Critic Ryan Sutton, responding to a fine piece by Pete Wells that largely laments the recent proliferation of expensive tasting menu-only restaurants.

Wells sees a bit of an epidemic in this trend. I argue that it’s just another wrinkle, and sometimes a positive wrinkle, in our increasingly diverse culinary world. Agree/Disagree? Let us know in the comments. 

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.

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“YOU know a movie is in trouble when a voice-over narrator has to explain the plot that the combined efforts of screenwriter, director and editor failed to make clear. Something like that is going on at Eleven Madison Park, which just eliminated its $125 prix fixe option and now offers only one menu, a $195 blowout that lasts about four hours.”

The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells argues that the stories and “homilies” at the (weeks-old) Eleven Madison Park 3.0 is undermining the fine cooking of Daniel Humm.

We at The Price Hike believe that any dish with multiple components deserves a proper explanation, just as a nice painting has a little placard next to it, offering novice and advanced viewers alike with some much needed context. That said, no diner ever wants a didactic experience, at any price point. 

We’ll report back on EMP 3.0 in the near future. Meanwhile, check out the fine column by Mr. Wells, or read our own musings on the higher entry-level price point, here and here

"Alinea in New York" at Eleven Madison Park Will Cost $495 Per Person Before Tax & Tip4

Wine pairings are included in the price of the one-week-only event.

After tax & service charge, you’re at $647, or $1,293 for two. That’s almost $300 more than what you might spend on dinner for two at Alinea proper. In Chicago, the tasting menu typically starts around $210 (it can range from $185-$265 depending on your reservation) and wine pairings generally start at $165 or thereabouts.

So after 20% service charge and 11.5% Chicago sales tax, you’re at $502 for one or $1,004 for two. 

If you’re ordering the $265 “prime time” menu at Alinea, your meal can cost around $575 or $1,151 for two. So Alinea, even at its most expensive, is still a lot less than what Alinea at Eleven Madison is charging. That all said, we’d expect a few tricks up the sleeves of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas when they show up at EMP. And when you factor in the cost of plane tickets to Chicago and a night or two in a hotel, yeah you’re actually saving a few bucks by doing it The Big Apple.  

Is this a BUY HOLD OR SELL? Your call, world. But we might give this one a try. 

Six-cent subsidy helps kill a school lunch program recruiting some of NYC's best chefs4

The school lunch program, which relied on Michelin-starred chefs like Gramercy Tavern’s Michael Anthony, didn’t meet “federal nutritional guidelines,” The Times reports. Compliance with those rules is required for in a six-cent-per-meal subsidy, so NYC discontinued the program. 

We at The Price Hike believe that having good chefs plan & prepare good meals for our children is worth an extra six cents. We also believe that ambitious chefs are better equipped to keep our children healthy than any federal regulations are. 

Eleven Madison Park Eliminating $125 Menu4

Eleven Madison Park, which boasts three Michelin stars and four Bloomberg News stars, is about to get more expensive — for some. ”Not long after Labor Day,” according to Jeff Gordinier of the New York Times, dinner will start at $195 per person. That’s the same price as the current tasting menu, but it’s a 56% price hike for those who previously opted for the shorter $125 menu, which is being eliminated. 

Under Eleven Madison Park’s new format, the entry-level cost of dinner, after tax and tip, will be $502 for two, or $1,004 for four. Previously, EMP’s starting cost for two was $322, or $644 for four. Is Eleven Madison still a STRONG BUY at these prices? We don’t see why not; some of our best experiences occurred while enjoying the longer menu and its excellent clam bake.

Then again, it will be incumbent upon Eleven Madison to convince regulars that spending at least an extra $180, for two, per visit, will be worth it. And if this 56% price hike of sorts results in some guests restricting their visits to once or twice a year instead of three of four times, Eleven Madison will have to work even harder to make sure those “occasional” diners still feel like coddled “regulars,” and that the increasingly expensive experience brings increasingly rarefied pleasures amid increasingly scare reservations. 

The Times also reports that the longer option will be the only option at lunch. We’re very curious to see what owners Will Guidara and Daniel Humm have up their sleeves (which, according to the New York Times, might be a few magic tricks… ) We’ll offer more musings on the new menus at Eleven Madison in the coming weeks and months (Last Update: 7:55pm, 27 July 2012). 

“The worst drought in the United States in nearly a half-century is expected to drive up the price of milk, beef and pork next year, the government said Wednesday, as consumers bear some of the brunt of the sweltering heat that is driving up the cost of feed corn. Poultry prices are expected to rise more immediately.”
The New York Times reports on food inflation fears for later this year and next. Let’s see what this does to the $79 chicken at Will Guidara and Daniel Humm’s The NoMad