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How much is too much to pay for a good meal?

I love to eat out, as all of you on this site do as well! However, I am young (mid 20s) and while I am a working professional, living in NY is expensive and cannot even imagine going to Babbo or (heaven forbid) Per Se- the prices are so high! (I am not judging anyone who does- but weighing the cost versus the satisfaction of a delicious meal factor, it just does not seem worth it to me). My price range, even for a special occasion usually is $15 or less for an appetizer, $25 or less for an entree, if there is a prix-fixe, $40 or less per person without drinks. As I have been able to find quality meals for these prices (or less!) even for special occasions, I just do not undertand why someone would be willing to pay more than $30 for an entree. But I know that a lot of people do- is it ever worth it? Am I missing out? Am I cheap? :}

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  1. We ate at the Inn at Little Washington last year as a last hurrah before moving from Virginia to San Francisco. It was the one meal we've had that we really felt we seriously overpaid for. The expectations were so high and though the service was exceptional the food just didn't pop the way we were thinking it would. The total bill was about $600 for the two of us including wine.

    We have had a few meals in the $300-$400, though, that we felt were well worth it.

    1. I can remember my aunt's horror when I told her that my husband and I had spent $100 each for dinner at a 3-star restaurant in France (this was in 1982, and we were by no means rich). She couldn't imagine any food being worth that high a price. Several years later, her daughter's future in-laws took her and her husband out to dinner at what was then considered to be the best restaurant in California. My aunt called me up the next day and apologized for having judged me too harshly. That said, you can spend big bucks for a very mediocre meal, so do your research first and keep your fingers crossed. Even the greatest restaurants have the odd off day.

      1. Nicole, choose your special occasions wisely and enjoy an occasional splurge. You are sharing a special city with special people who can eat like kings everyday. But you are young and learning life's pleasures at a measured pace. Don't exhaust your life's thrills too soon!

        A memory of my only major meal at Le Cirque 25 years ago with three friends, was watching a little old man sitting alone at a 2-top table. He was unremarkable, until I observed him with a pocket knife doing funny carving things. I wondered how this poor little old man could find himself so out of place. I learned later that he dined every night at Le Cirque, and preferred shaving his own french truffles.

        1. much of it is perspective and priorities. i can't understand why somebody would spend $50,000 on a car, since a $25,000 car will get you from *point a* to *point b* too.

          however, i have spent $500 or more per person on dinner and wine. i still dream about those meals, and look forward to more. and i don't own a car, lol.

          3 Replies
          1. re: hotoynoodle

            I think the answer to this questions depends upon what kind of chowhound you are. For me, dining out is all about the food. If I'm enjoying delicious food with friends in a place that is clean, relatively quiet, and the service is good, I consider it a wonderful experience. Linen tablecloths, waiters in white jackets, and creative presentations are nice, but they are not my priority. After many years and many dollars, I have learned that sophisticated ambiance and sky high prices sometimes come with mediocre food.

            1. re: breadbox

              indeed. however, they can also mean a flawless 3-star michelin meal.

            2. re: hotoynoodle

              I definitely agree with you. We all have different priorities. When one of my girlfriends was in law school (no income), she budgeted for trips, occasional nice meals, but didn't leave anything for certain items such as a gym membership (which is a necessity in my eyes).

              I've also spent more than $500/person for a meal and do not have a car either. And if I'm ever in the market for one, a cute VW Beetle shall suffice (which starts at $16,490).

            3. I really love great meals at different price ranges. Two things:

              1. It is more disappointing to have to pay more for a mediocre meal.

              2. A nagging thought is often at the back of my mind when eating at expensive places: At the price for one person, I cound easily and enjoyably produce a white-linen, high end meal at home for four people. Buying high-end ingredients can mean easy prep. Salmon, lamb, good wines and cheeses, caviar, artichokes or asparagus, simple fresh green salad, for example, can equal "less is more" in terms of prep.

              6 Replies
              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                Sam I agree with you. It is very disappointing to pay $10-15 for a poor burger or sandwich in an average place. I would rather save up and go for a wonderful meal where you feel special and get dressed up.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  I definitely concur with 1. I'm a big fan of getting what you pay for. I used to love the pork chop special at a counter diner where I went to college. Thursday nights: two pork chops cooked on the flat top, green beans (sometimes fresh, sometimes canned), mashed potatoes and gravy, dinner roll (well, actually, a toasted hamburger bun) and a soda for $3.75 (all the way up to $4.25 now, I hear, 10 years later). One of my favorite meals in town. Better in many ways than the mediocre $25 entrees at some of the restaurants in town.

                  1. re: ccbweb

                    Thanks for replying- I see the points made and have to agree- it's about priorities. For myself, I feel comfortable in my price range- anything more and the food would have to be out of this world for me not to feel guilty about spending so much. But at the same time, I would rather pay more for a good meal than less for a mediocre one. Also, I try to do as Europeans do- on a Sat afternoon go to the "high end" restauarant for lunch- it's somewhat cheaper and should be the same quality.
                    Question: are the $30 and above entrees really due to expensive ingredients/quality or just super-overcharge? (I'm guessing overcharge or they wouldn't be cheaper during lunch)

                    1. re: NicoleFriedman

                      It depends...its probably not really overcharing all that much. Good ingredients are expensive and it takes a lot of time and ability to turn them into top notch eats. Lunch is usually a smaller portion, so lower prices are to be expected. Not to mention, people aren't willing to pay as much for lunch, so there's a market issue at play as well. Another factor at dinner at places that are serving $30+ entrees is that there is likely to be more to the service; ie, bread and butter/oil etc.

                      Going to high end places for lunch is a good way to get the quality food and good service, but my experience is that most places click a little better during dinner service and so though you'll get to experience the food you may not experience all of the best a restaurant has to offer. This isn't a knock on the restaurants or saying that they're slacking during lunch...just that lunch is a dicier proposition because some diners want quick and relatively cheap, others want the full on experience, some want small portions others are looking for a big meal so they can eat a smaller meal later, etc.

                      1. re: NicoleFriedman

                        There are no absolutes - some ingredients simply cost more and it's up to you to decide if you're willing to pay more for them. I'd expect to pay more for really great seafood, "exotic" fare such as fois gras, etc.

                        As a person who likes to cook, I'm also wary of ordering things I can make at home... a $12 burger better be something I'd never think to do or hope to achieve in the kitchen. Likewise, an expensive pasta dish at a restaurant better deliver more than a different take on sauce and noodles that can be put together at home for just a few bucks. That said, I had a killer pasta meal recently that was well worth the high price... it was on a different level and made with stuff you're not going to find in the grocery store.

                        Also pay attention to portion size. I love meat, for example, but I never crave a 38 oz. double porterhouse. Well, I wouldn't turn it down, and would enjoy the first few bites, but I'd be happy with a nice 6 oz bit of beef and a variety of tasty sides. A lot of places try to deliver both quantity and quality (and many do), but I often find it's overkill.

                        Finally, it's a business. Most places are going to try and get as much money out of you as possible. Not in an evil way (though some do), but it's all a bit of a game. Learn the nuances and then you'll be fine with saying no to some things, or fine with saying yes to that overpriced dessert that will make your date happy.

                        1. re: tastyjon

                          Many good points in this post. I very much agree with tastyjon's point re: thinking twice about ordering stuff and paying too much for food I could (and do) easily make at home for a lot less money.

                  2. IMO, the best deal on the NY restaurant scene is the prix-fixe lunch at Jean-Georges. The food is exquisite, as is the service. I don't think it's priced one cent above its value. Book far in advance.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: pikawicca

                      Ah yes, the addendum to my lunch ramblings: there are some places that just click all the time and are on point every second they are open. Jean-Georges is one, I understand the French Laundry is as well.

                    2. Depends largely on how much you make.

                      I think, for me at least, a good barometer is not more than 40% of your total weekly take home (i.e., net) income

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Is that for one meal, or for an entire week? Either way, If I was to go by that indicator, I'd be looknig at more than $300 a week, and I'm not exactly loaded. In my case, I consider $40 for a meal to be an extravigant splurge (although I will do so on rare occasion.)

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          Banks normally use that percentage for you fixed charge coverage for a mortgage loan, so if you think your food should equal your mortgage payment that's a lot of food.

                          1. re: jfood

                            When I say 40% of net weekly income, I'm talking about a once in a while splurge meal.

                            Mortgage payments are paid every month.

                            I don't usually spend 40% of weekly income every month on a meal. 5 or 6 times a year, maybe.

                        2. Nicole Friedman, you are worth an occasional $200 meal. It is the equivalent of 4 of your regular $50 price range meals. Those are possibly in restaurants that may well be here-today, gone-tomorrow. But for that $200, you can eat at a Per Se, Chez Panisse, French Laundry, Le Cirque, Nobu, etc. that people will still talk about decades later when they discuss food and wine trends and history. So you go out to eat one time instead of four times, but Oh! what a one time that is!
                          Yes, it's expensive. But the total experience of that evening is more than the sum of the ingredients, the surroundings, the table settings, the service, and everything else that makes fine dining what it is. It's the philosophy of that chef who has had an impact on American cuisine. And you were there. Worth skipping a few other restaurant meals. You will remember that meal far longer than the four others you skipped to save up for the special one..

                          1. It depends. First which meal?

                            Breakfast - Jfood is not a Breakfast person. As far as the meal it does not get any better than a great bagel, a shmear and some novey, so I max out at ~$12. Buffet breakfast are just not in the cards.

                            Lunch - Let's take business lunches off the table, no a real life experience. Jfood can exist on good Chinese, pastrami, cheeseburgers and street food. So probably $12-15 tops the list again.

                            Dinner - M&M Jfood feel OK at $100-125 for a weekend dinner at a good resto (remember no booze zone). At $150 it's pretty special. A special b'day event or with friends ($150-200). Above that it gets too expensive. When the choice is a meal or a Broadway show the Jfood's are seated in Seats M101 & M103

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: jfood

                              Well, TT regularly spent in the triple digits for dinner, and that's without wine!


                            2. I'll let you know once I can scrape together $900 so my wife and I can eat at Masa.

                              1. You are absolutely not "cheap." I do not live in NYC and have only been there 5 times in the past 8 years, but I know it's expensive.
                                There are definitely times when its worth it, even in this small town of Detroit :) In fact, I'm guessing you get more for your money here, but that's beside the point...
                                A really good meal consists of amazing, fresh food, prepared properly (ie, right temperature, cooked as ordered) and served impeccably by an attentive server (but not too attentive), in a clean restaurant, and in a setting that YOU enjoy. Never force yourself to enjoy a meal because of its price. Do treat yourself when you can afford it to see how you like it. There really is a difference when the restaurant itself makes one. But don't go broke doing it. You live in NY! So many inexpensive options.

                                1. There are lots of great foods to be had for under $20 a main. Shoot, there are lots of great foods to be had for under $10 a main.

                                  For special occasions my husband and I will spend $250-400 including wine -- and yes, it's worth it. But it's as much for the ambiance as anything. And the wine pairings, which we couldn't do at home.

                                  That said, I have been disappointed more at high end places, Mesa & Bar Americain come to mind, than at low end places. And the older I get, the less likely I am to believe that a high end place is worth it.

                                  To be fair though, the most expensive meal we have ever had was at Taillevent in Paris. It was about $1300 and to be honest, it was very much worth it to us. I would rather eat there once, and eat bagettes the rest of the trip than eat at E100 meals every night.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: orangewasabi

                                    Maybe I am cheap- when I was in Paris my "dining out" splurges were no more than 20 E a night:} But I stayed in the Latin Quarter- many options and I always did the prix-fixe. I thought the food was always delicious and did not feel I was missing out by dining in a more expensive place. I do realize though that I sacrificed on space- I suppose that you do pay more for the ambiance and "room"- which if you're with a date (I was not) may be worth it. (I wasn't:} ) Just curious- what did you eat for the $1300 meal?

                                    1. re: NicoleFriedman

                                      I don't know how old you are Nicole, but I doubt you are cheap, you're probably just at a different stage of life.

                                      At Taillevent, we had the tasting menu -- with matching wines. It was a series of extraordinary tastes, with food skills we hadn't ever encountered before. I liken it to hearing someone like David Gilmour (ex Pink Floyd) perform -- it's all notes, but it's put together in a way that is extraordinary. And it's not just about money. We ate at Le Cinq, which was in a similar range and it was not nearly as good. Spending more money doesn't necessarily mean better, likewise spending less doesn't mean worse.

                                  2. I'm in NYC as well, in my early 30's and have what I think is a good household income but it's hard to live in NYC when it comes to eating out and not have moments where one wonders - am I missing out on the high end places?

                                    The prices you list actually keep you open to lots of places. Babbo may not be completely off limits. The thing I've learned is that quality comes at various price points, which I think others have said here as well. I think there are just a few places where the higher price is deserving and while high, it provides an experience unlike one would find elsewhere. I was lucky enough to go to Per Se on my company's tab and thought even if I paid for it, it would be worth every penny. Everything about it felt special.

                                    The other thing to consider is maybe mixing up how you spend your eating out budget. My SO and I are living on a tighter budget these days as we have a goal in mind for our savings so now we spend $400 a month on eating out, not including groceries. It's like a game each month on where to spend, and also we make choices where we know we're going to enjoy wherever we go - whether it's a place that is $400 and blows the whole budget, $200 for both of us, or $20 for two. So you might have to forgo going out a lot more often from time to time, but you can make the trade-off that maybe a few smaller meals will be substituted with a big splurge at a place you'd like to try.

                                    1. I certainly don't think you're cheap. Anything you purchase is about value, and if you don't judge the value of a $100 meal to be twice as good as a $50 meal, maybe you don't go there. As a low 20s aspiring-chowhound-to-be (I haven't earned it yet), I find that not only am I not willing to part with more than $50 on a meal, but most of my friends aren't either. We have splendid special events for $20 a person by doing potlucks, picnics, or just going somewhere casual. In our eyes, the event is more about the people than the food.

                                      That said, I do have like-minded friends who are willing to splurge with me. The theory about financial situations certainly seems applicable here, with the single working professionals with little debt and fewer expenses more likely to spend. We've had some great times discussing the more subtle points of our food and just discussing places to eat in general. We had a memorable 3 day run in Sacramento where we took pics and discussed starting a 3-person foodblog based out of Sac-town, LA, and Irvine (where each of us live). These are the only 2 people among my friends to whom I'd even suggest a meal over $50.

                                      If the day comes in my future when I'm willing to spend $200 on a single meal, I had better be re-enacting a certain Meg Ryan scene...which may be tough since I'm a guy. :)

                                      1. Once-in-a-lifetime meals (or two- or three-times, max!!) are events you'll remember forever. If I'm just looking for a meal, the max price drops FAR. When I'm looking for experiences, sometimes I know I have to pay for them.

                                        I rarely talk about the $1,000 tab for two at the French Laundry (leads some folks to choke), but I also consider the alternatives: 20 typical weeknight dinner tabs in DC at $50 a pop, or five (granted, overpriced) $200 dinners at an upscale bistro in town.

                                        That wicked splurge at FL led to more than a dozen courses, some of the best wine I've ever had, and an experience I'll always remember. (Note: experience, not meal.)

                                        I agree with the "perspective" commenter, though in a slightly different way. It's all about your goals, needs, desires, etc. (And note, my lunch the day of my Laundry dinner consisted of sitting on a curb noshing on taco truck pork tacos, also a very memorable experience.)

                                        1. Depends on each family's circumstances. If one is heavily in dept, spending $1000 for dinner is too much. OTOH, a couple with mid six figure salary and little debt can and will enjoy that meal at Per Se. Is everyone's priorities in order?
                                          We all have our preferences and what is important to us. To answer your questions:
                                          Is it ever worth it? --- yes and no.
                                          Am I missing out? --- no
                                          Am I cheap? --- no

                                          1. First of all, no, you are not cheap. Is it ever worth it? To me, absolutely. I'm a teacher, so I am certainly not rich. Some of my friends, however, think I'm crazy for spending huge sums of money on restaurants, but they will save up money to spend hundreds of dollars on a concert ticket or a sports event. Are you missing out? It depends on the amount of enjoyment you get from a fine meal.

                                            If you are happy with the restaurants you are going to and you don't feel like you are missing out, then I would continue the way you are going. However, if you really want to know what a find dining experience is like, I have a suggestion. Put away money every week into a jar. If you put away $2-$5 each week, you will have about $100-$250 at the end of the year. Save up until you can splurge once on one of these high-end restaurants, and then judge for yourself if it was worth it.

                                            1. You should never spend more than you have. On restaurants, just like everything else.

                                              We live in NY and yes, it is expensive. To me, paying too much is basically paying more than you can afford, or paying too much for something that isn't worth it.

                                              If it were only within my budget I would rather go to a really outstanding restaurant and have a wonderful dining experience once a month and spend $250-$300 for two than have 10 mediocre meals at $30 for 2.

                                              But then my DH insists on paying credit cards in full at the end of the month and carrying no debt We may not accumulate as much stuff, but we sure do sleep better at night.

                                              1. Isn't it fair to assume that a good meal can be had at every price range?

                                                or...that when we pay $$$ or more for a meal we are also paying $$$ for salaries, atmosphere, location, hours of operation, skills of the chef; in other words, paying for more than the items on the menu.

                                                How much is too much is a tricky question but if one is not satisfied with their meal it's usually too much at any price.

                                                1. Eliminating 4-5 trips to a coffeehouse (I really shouldn't pick on Starbucks since I've never visited one!) each week will net over $1000 yearly. When I showed my sons the math, they cut these out very quickly ($5 per cup X 4 visits = $20 weekly X 52 weeks = $1040). This could turn into a pretty impressive splurge for you.

                                                  Remember, because "everyone" else is doing it (frequent meals out, take-out lattes, etc) doesn't mean that it is a great idea. The great part about being a grown-up is letting go of the HS-college herd mentality to make your own decisions. Saving on the easy-to-do-at-home food frees that cash for a serious splurge so your meal experience at Babbo or Per Se become reality instead of dream material. Nicole, you decide what is important to you. Then do it.

                                                  At this stage in my life, with comfortable disposible income, I'm very happy to have the majority of our meals at home with extraordinary ingredients (when I can find them) made with great care. Do we splurge when dining out? You betcha and love every minute of it. What really chaps my hide is paying $50-$100 for a mediocre meal. Sometimes we have no choice and try to be as gracious as possible about it (since my DH usually gets the bill). But when we do, we'll opt out of dullsville to eat very well at home.

                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: Sherri

                                                    My family and I have made it a large part of our entertainment hunting down great meals for reasonable prices. (Reasonable can range up to roughly $30 or so a person depending on the available cash at the moment.) It's a real thrill when we find a hidden gem - and it doesn't happen that often. Most of the time what we get, if we're lucky, is decently prepared food, and a fun night out for the three of us.

                                                    But those times that we end up with a medicore (or worse) meal? - yeah, it chaps my hide too. I hate wasting money like that.

                                                    Of course, there are those times that we splurge - maybe 2 times a year. I love that too!

                                                    1. re: Sherri

                                                      Yikes, 4-5 trips to a coffee house a week? Another reason I'm glad I can't stand coffee :) It's like smoking a pack a day in terms of the financial impact.

                                                      I definitely agree on the "save elsewhere for stuff you want" front. I have no problem spending money on my hobbies, but will often skimp on necessary items for cleaning and the like.

                                                      1. re: Sherri

                                                        Wow, $5 a cup? I didn't know you could get to $5 a cup even at Starbucks. I have seen some of the calculations about how much money can be saved by skipping coffee (of course, the same calculations hold for anything that costs a couple of dollars and is often consumed...) and I remember looking at one of the numbers which was about $50,000 over the course of 30 years or so and thinking "I'd rather have the coffee."

                                                        The moral: know what you're getting into and make your choices about how much you want to spend.

                                                      2. How much is too much? The minute you regret it is when it's too much. I have regretted $1.50 tamales and am glad I went to French Laundry...

                                                        1. I think what is "too much" depends on a lot of things: where you are in your life, what your finances are like, how often you eat out, whether its a special occasion, etc.

                                                          In my early- to mid-20s, when I was in college and grad school, an entree in the high teens felt really, really expensive. Now, in my 30s, I've done reasonably well for myself and I can afford to eat out at high end places. And I do go out to eat a lot, but still mostly at mid-priced places. Even though I could afford to eat at really high-end restaurants more often, I like to save them for occasion meals (birthdays, anniversaries, new job, etc.). I want a meal on days like that to still feel "special" and I want to still appreciate the magic of a perfect restaurant experience. If I ate like that more frequently, I think it would lose that quality.

                                                          p.s. Babbo is not as expensive as you seem to think (most things are within your special occassion price range). http://www.babbonyc.com/menu2.html Go grab a seat at the bar and try it out.