I'm on the road this week, working my way down to Florida. Stopped in New York to attend a dinner at Per Se, one of the restaurants mentioned in the following article from the NYTimes. Wasn't going to attend the dinner until I read some more about the restaurant, the newest creation (its about a year old) from the chef/owner of "French Laundry". Per Se is supposed to be incredible....I'll let you know what Maine Foodie thinks! In the meantime, read the following article by Jodi Cantor for the NYTimes
A new dish is appearing on menus across the nation. Restaurateurs say they have little choice other than offer it, though it horrifies many customers. That item is the $40 entree. Until recently, such prices were the stuff of four-star, white-tablecloth meals, the kind that ended with a diamond ring on the petit four tray. But now entrees over $40 can be found in restaurants that are merely upscale, where diners wear jeans and tote children. In geographic terms, New York and Las Vegas have led the charge, and in culinary ones, luxury items like steak and lobster were first and are still most prevalent.
But the $40 entree is migrating: to restaurants in Philadelphia, Fort Lauderdale and Denver, and to ingredients like fish and even pasta. Several national chains serve entrees priced above $40.
“Forty is the new 30,” said Richard Coraine, the chief operating officer of Union Square Hospitality Group, which recently began charging $42 for a 1¾-ounce appetizer portion of lobster at lunchtime at the Modern in New York. Ten percent of its lunch patrons order the dish, it says.
Hovering just below the $40 mark is an even vaster group of $38 and $39 entrees, waiting to cross the line like thirtysomethings approaching a zero-ended birthday. The arctic char at the Indianapolis branch of the Oceanaire Seafood Room chain is $38.50. Metropolitan Grill in Seattle serves shrimp scampi for $39.95. At Mike’s, a new steakhouse in Brooklyn Heights, $9.95 chicken nuggets share the menu with $38.95 veal chops.
Like the $100 Broadway ticket, $200 jeans and the $20 museum admission, the $40 entree is provoking a righteous burst of populist outrage, especially among those who pay their own way. When Angela Dansby, a Chicago diner, sees a 4 in front of a price, she thinks: “Either this must be out of this world, or it’s totally overpriced and I’m not going to order it. It’s usually the latter.” When she does pay, she compensates by skimping on appetizers and wine.
Restaurateurs say rising rents, ever more elaborate interior-decoration schemes and the increasing cost of premium ingredients — especially beef and fish — leave them little choice. Chefs, so fond of listing purveyors on menus, do not want those names to be Tyson and Del Monte. They “take pride in getting carrots or beets that no one has,” Mr. Coraine said.
Bobby Flay acknowledges that “the needle has moved very fast.” Mr. Flay recently crossed the $40 mark in his Las Vegas and Atlantic City outposts, though he says he intentionally loses money on many other entrees in order to keep prices reasonable. His entrees at Mesa Grill in New York top out at $34. (When it opened in 1991, the steepest entree was $19, or $28.30 when adjusted for inflation.)
But what makes the rise of the $40 entree so significant is not just the price creep, it’s the sophisticated calculation behind it. A new breed of menu “engineers” have proved that highly priced entrees increase revenue even if no one orders them. A $43 entree makes a $36 one look like a deal.
“Just putting one high price on the menu will take your average check up,” said Gregg Rapp, one such consultant. “My mom taught me to never order the most expensive thing on the menu, but you’ll order the second.”
With just a few keystrokes, restaurateurs can now digitally view the entire history of a dish: how the lamb sold around this time last year, whether it did better when paired with squash or risotto, and how orders rose or fell when the price went from $39 to $41.
With a few more clicks and a new stack of paper in the office printer, the menu can be revised to test new prices.
“In the old days, restaurateurs printed up menus and they were stuck with them for six months or a year; now they can do it daily, experimenting with price or placement,” said Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America, which teaches menu engineering to all its chefs in training.
The towering prices at wildly luxurious restaurants like Per Se and Masa in New York and Alinea in Chicago have set a new price in the collective dining consciousness for a truly top meal, nudging up what diners will pay for far more modest dinners. In Las Vegas, the current talk is about Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace, where desserts alone are $22 each and a meal for two can easily run $500.
“I love when I hear about that stuff, because then Craft becomes inexpensive,” said Tom Colicchio, chef of the quickly multiplying restaurants, including a steakhouse in Las Vegas.
Oddly, as entrees rise in price, they seem to be shedding their traditional accompaniments. Today a $40 main dish is often now just that. Order a side dish, and the entree price climbs dizzyingly close to the 50’s. At the highly influential Craft, Mr. Colicchio serves pricey, naked hunks of protein and charges extra for vegetables. (He says the portions are enough for two.) Porter House, a new steakhouse at the Time Warner Center in New York, even charges diners separately for sauce.
“I blame Tom Colicchio for this,” said Barry Okun, a New York lawyer who has established a personal price limit of “between $50 and $60” per entree. “It’s not that I’m happy about it,” he added.
Mr. Colicchio acknowledged the influence of his pricing, adding that restaurants like those of the Bistro Laurent Tourondel group in New York “completely ripped off the concept” of focusing on individual elements.
To which Mr. Tourondel replied, “He should look back at the old-time steakhouse menus that were around way before Craft ever existed.”
Liz Johannesen, senior manager of restaurant marketing at OpenTable, which takes online reservations for 6,000 restaurants nationwide, said that in the last year diners had started occupying tables for longer periods, mimicking the leisurely pace at the very top establishments and forcing restaurants to raise entree prices because they were turning fewer tables.
“Just like in other cultural pursuits, trends filter downwards,” Ms. Johannesen said.
That applies to a taste for splurging as well. Kobe and Wagyu beef, from pampered Japanese cattle renowned for their tender meat, is cropping up at restaurants around the nation, according to Technomic, an industry research concern. Steakhouses and sushi restaurants, now so ubiquitous, have trained diners to pay large sums for specific ingredients, leading some to fall for the old “if it’s expensive it must be great” trick.
Indeed, no chef needs a menu engineer to explain a time-honored truth of the restaurant industry: many business diners look to spend money, not save it.
“If I’m entertaining clients, it’s all about making sure my clients are having the best time,” said Andrew Passeri, a private banker in New York who last week dined at davidburke & donatella, where he chose the $44 lobster over the $46 Dover sole and the $44 ostrich scramble.
At those prices, dinner is garnished with a large dusting of skepticism. Underattentive service or an overcooked piece of fish is not merely a minor annoyance but an unjustifiable offense.
“I’m happy to pay good money for something I can’t replicate at home,” said Ms. Dansby, of Chicago, “but when you get charged these prices for bad service, or quality, or visual presentation that isn’t so great, it’s really irritating.”
Two years ago, when Gray Kunz opened Cafe Gray in the Time Warner Center, he said he hoped it would become a destination for secretaries who work in the surrounding office buildings. The priciest entree then was the short ribs at $34. Now they are $38, the chicken is $37, and Mr. Kunz just introduced a lobster ravioli at $41.
“The biggest gasp I ever had at menu prices was the first time I went to Cafe Gray,” Mr. Okun said. “It looks like it should be a casual ‘stop in here for a bite’ place. For the amount of money you’re spending, you really want a special experience.”
Mr. Kunz now calls his restaurant “right in between the high end and low end” and said he provided “good product for very good value.”
According to Zagat, which measures what diners estimate paying, not actual prices, the average check at the most expensive 200 restaurants in San Francisco has risen 14 percent in the last two years, after remaining fairly stable earlier in the decade. At the 200 priciest restaurants in New York, Zagat users say, checks have followed the same pattern.
For his part, Tim Zagat, publisher of the guides that bear his name, said he was almost over the shock of entree prices. But now, he said, he finds himself startled by another development.
“Your $40 plate?” Mr. Zagat said. “It comes with a $20 first course.”