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Calgary High-End Prices

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I travel frequently on business and for the last couple of years this has meant several trips a year to New York. This has given me a chance to try out some excellent restaurants and cafes in Manhattan and Brooklyn: from cheap ethnic restaurants in the East Village to some of the best (and most expensive) places around the city.

But after paying top dollar at some very nice restaurants in New York, I find myself constantly surprised when I get home at the prices charged by many Calgary restaurants: 15-20$ for appetizers, 40$ plus for a main course, never mind the desserts.... I would expect these prices at a place like Bouley, or...

Now I am willing to pay top dollar for an exceptional evening out in Calgary. And there are some top-class restaurants in Calgary that are worth every penny: Capo and River Cafe are both excellent, I love Divino, and we had a surprising evening a few weeks ago at Teatro, the first time I had been there in several years. There are other places in town that are as good as any I have found in New York: Fleur de Sel outclasses Les Halles for example, and some of the best Indian restaurants here are as good as I have found in NY so far.

But there are too many "good but not great" places in Calgary charging Manhattan-level prices. I know: oil boom, inflated real estate, hard to get staff, yaddah yaddah. Still there has to be a limit to the number of people who are willing to pay so much for a less than stellar experience.

Are there other people out there who are also put off by overly high prices in town? Are you seeing menu prices starting to come down (just like housing prices)?

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  1. I don't eat out half as much as I used to. Prices are high, food is often mediocre and poor service. I can get better food at home for a fraction of the price.

    1 Reply
    1. re: sarah galvin

      It often baffles me how much we pay for a good meal here. In so many parts of the world, you can eat well very reasonably. When I think that it costs me less to have dinner in Paris (!!!!), which is probably the culinary capital of the world, it is hard to rationalize the prices in Calgary.

      We do continue to eat out, but we select pretty carefully. I agree that many restaurants do not live up to their price tag. If we are doing an occasion dinner, Il Sogno and Tribune always make us happy. But, if we just want a casual dinner for a reasonable price, it is pretty slim pickings...the best option in town in Sandros, and understandably, they are always packed. The biggest problem in this city is not high end dining - we've got plenty of that. We need non-chain, bistro-like establishments that serve good food at fair prices. IMHO, that is the biggest gap in the Calgary dining scene.

    2. Housing prices aren't coming down, they're just not increasing as fast. We're stuck, people.

      But housing is not remotely as high as NYC, and wages in Calgary are high- so we do have more disposable income than they do in NYC (or SF, or Vancouver), and aside from that I try to look at the bright side- I'm not surrouded by arrogant trust-fund hipsters, we have a better (much better) coffee scene than does NYC (or Montreal or Toronto), I can walk downtown, we have the best air quality of any major city in the world..

      Yeah dining out can be pricey but I can afford it. LIfe isn't so bad, and try getting to Lake Louise from Manhattan.

      5 Replies
      1. re: John Manzo

        Yeah, you're right, life is good. Maybe we were spoiled before. But I do agree, we have a hole in the market when it comes to cheap 'n cheery non-chain eateries.

        1. re: sarah galvin

          It's not just Calgary that has this "hole" of good mid-range places...it's probably 80% of N. America. Culturally, our overall appreciation for food is pretty low...we tend to prefer volume and marketing over real quality or value.

          1. re: Libertycafe

            I'm just looking forward to post-smoking-ban Germany.

            1. re: John Manzo

              John, I'll post this even though I know it will be removed as well, but all the indoor pubs and restaurants in Munich, Konstanz/Bodensee lake area, and Black Forest region are smoke-free.

              And yes, I think quite a number of mid-range (quality-wise) Calgary restaurants are charging high prices for food that are not worth the price. But if there are people are willing to pay the dollars, then this is the situation we end up with. It's all very sad.

              1. re: Libertycafe

                I was in Deutschland in October (NOT for Oktoberfest! Nowhere near Bayern!) and heard about the smoking ban in Stuttgart (eg) and the one in Frankfurt was amazingly just as extensive as here, but Koeln was a NIGHTMARE, torture, and Berlin wasn't much better- that said the quality of food is just insanely good and yes it's depressing to get so much less value here... that said we get a lot more bang for the buck with housing vs Europe and you have to look on the bright side. Germans are emigrating to Canada like mad so there must be draws besides the food for them to move to, say, Steinbach MB.

      2. Not saying I don't like Calgary but we really noticed restaurant prices when we had a steak dinner in Montreal that was SO much cheaper than it would have been here. The irony is that they were having an Alberta beef promotion.

        1. Alley asks, "Still there has to be a limit to the number of people who are willing to pay so much for a less than stellar experience"

          One thing I've found about Calgary is that there is actually nearly no limit to the amount of people who are willing to pay so much for something less than stellar (and I'm not just talking about food... have you stepped inside a furniture store recently? I've never seen such ugly pricey stuff). There's a sucker born every minute, but here, they come with a ridiculously large yearly income (I'm jealous).

          It's supply and demand and John's right; Calgary has a very high supply of people with high wages/disposable income. Either that, or a much stronger willingness to extend their credit. I would venture a guess that on an average basis, our disposable income is much higher than that of a typical manhattanite or vancouverite, and certainly more than that of an ottawan or montrealer.

          However, i think price comparisons to New York (or even Vancouver or Toronto) are almost unfair. Calgary has one-quarter the population of Vancouver, maybe 1/20 that of Manhattan. I would wager that the ratio of the populations to number of restaurants is similar, if not even of greater disparity. Manhattan and Vancouver are much bigger markets for restaurants with increased competition for consumer dollar, which i think is why you see so much more in the mid range in these larger centers. Restaurants aren't able to get away with charging as much as they can here, because the consumer has so much more to choose from.

          A fairer comparison size-wise might be Ottawa. 5-10yrs ago, i probably would've argued that Ottawa-Hull beat out Calgary in every area food-wise, but i have to admit that Calgary's come a long way quite quickly. But Ottawa still has much more in the mid/low range than Calgary does, arguably because being mostly a civil servant/university town, people are pretty cheap.

          Lastly, I think it's important to notice that we're pretty much a thousand kilometers from the nearest port/shipping hub and 600 Km from fresh fruit (at least. A lot more when okanagan stuff isn't in season). Sure, there some Alberta greenhouses, and nearby livestock farms and the like, but I'm sure most midrange restaurants aren't getting their tomatoes from artisanal producers like hotchkiss... and if they were, prices would be even higher... With gas prices going the way they're going, food costs (still a substantial chunk of restaurant prices) are only going to rise.

          So... put off by high prices? not yet. As for seeing menu prices starting to come down? not likely...

          1 Reply
          1. re: marcopolo

            I agree with every word you say, but have to correct you on the demographics- Calgary is about half (not one-quarter) the size of Vancouver (1.1 million in Calgary CMA vs 2.2 million in Vancouver CMA); we're about 1/18 the size of the NYC metro area, so one-twentieth is about right.

            I think about the age of the city as well- when Montreal (as an oft-mentioned example of what we compare poorly with) was barely 100 years old it was riddled with typhoid and needless to say there was not much in the way of good restaurants! Calgary isn't just smaller than a lot of the cities that we are compared with; it's also more remote, as MP mentions, AND it is YOUNG. I'd go so far as to say that it's downright miraculous that this city is as urbane as it is- we could be Phoenix, but we're not Phoenix. Just look at downtown employment stats and mass transit usage stats for Calgary- we have the 6th-highest rate of transit usage in North America; the only American city that beats us is NYC (which is tops in NA, but then come five Canadian cities)... Dallas, a city that we're often compared to, has 10% (yes, one-tenth- 16% in Calgary versus 1.6% in Dallas) transit usage that we do.

            Of course none of this has to do with restos :-)

          2. The prices in this town can be atrocious, especially paired with bad food and bad service. Alloy is well priced, nice room, but the food isn't fabulous. Much nicer than Tangerine and Seven, which are severely over priced with terrible food. Divino's is always good value, as well as Blink, next door. You're paying more for Belvedere but it has a nice lounge.
            I went for dinner in New York at Daniel and spent as much on a world class meal as I have spent on an average meal in Calgary! Maybe Daniel should open a restaurant in Calgary! I agree, Les Halles was definately NOT good. Have you been to Union Square Cafe in NY? Probably one of the best restaurants in the city.

            1. I guess restaurants really are charging high prices, because frankly, they can. It is appalling even to see the prices climb at a wonton noodle shop in Chinatown.

              1 Reply
              1. re: doramicat

                And Chinatown is cheaper than the rest of downtown for asian food too! One of the mediocre Vietnamese joints on 7th Ave (not exactly high rent), charges $10 for a rather poor bowl of pho. At least you can get good pho in Chinatown for $7.

                The expense account issue is obvious I think. As a summer student for a big petroleum company I have been fascinated by the amount and cost of lunches I've been to. Private room at the Chicago Chophouse ordering a la carte for 45 people? No problem. Expense account.

              2. Another reason for the price hikes is so many people downtown eat lunch on the company expense account. When you go into some places you can tell these people aren't paying for their own meal.

                1. I don't like the high prices for sub-par good food either; I'll pay if it's good, my logic being that if something is really exceptional at least I didn't have to get on a plane to get it :)

                  There are a few other things which contribute to the high prices - labour costs, and transportation costs. As Bourdain says/implies - I don't think NYC kitchens would last for five seconds if everyone who was an illegal alien was forced to leave. (yikes!) Calgary kitchens can't compete as there isn't cheap labour in the same way. If you've ever watched american home-flipper shows you'll sadly know what I mean.

                  Plus, since the demand here is less with fewer people overall, those who are importing food (let's face it nearly everything is imported), have to charge more since they are bringing in smaller amounts, and might not be able to sell it all regardless.

                  I think many restaurants also feel they need to legitimize what they do by creating beautiful interiors, use expensive linens, place settings etc., so the cost per plate has to be more. Perfect example - Olives vs. Il Centro.

                  1. Also let's not forget that downtown real estate is second only to NYC in terms of cost for leasing in north america (TO is second)...that combined with the cost of labour in this city needs to be passed on to consumers in order for the restaurants to stay in business. This of course does not excuse bad food, or poor service - but is an explaination for the high prices on menus. (FYI - the suburban area is ranked 6th most expensive in Canada)

                    1. I completely agree with the above sentiment. I also was in NYC a few weeks ago, and I couldn't believe that I could eat a meal at Babbo, which was truly one of the best meals of my life, for a price far below a meal at EArl's. Come on now; Babbo below Earl's. I largely refuse to eat at the "top-class" restaurants here, with the exception of a few select places which I believe still provide quality good, such as Mercato, but the prices are still way too high. This city is desperate for variety, and good quality restaurants with great ambiance, that do not cost a fortune to dine at.

                      I think we can make a difference by choosing not to eat in places which are charging exhorbitant prices, and support restaurants which are attempting to provide quality food and reasonable prices. But, I would love to know where those places are.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: cowtownfoodie

                        i don't know if we can do much by choosing not to eat in over priced restaurants - the oil and gas guys on expense accounts don't care what they spend and they are filling places like Belgo everyday which is one of the most overpriced for poor quality and service around downtown.

                        i was in NYC in the fall and although we spent more money on food than any previous vacation, it was not near as much as we would have spent eating out in calgary or vancouver and we ate well in NYC.

                        as a commercial designer, and one that does design the odd restaurant, I don't want to see the spaces go down hill, the interiors are a major part of the experience.

                      2. Check out the book "Cheap Eats" by John Gilchrist. I tried out Pelican Pier and it was DIVINE! Wonderful quality for less than 20 dollars an entree. The key lime pie was also to die for. I plan to check out his other recommendations.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: AriaDream

                          hmmm, construction projects being halted, high gas prices, bank and financial industry losses....hey high-priced Calgary restaurants take this as a wakeup call. Economic slowdowns are inevitable. History always repeats itself. Expense accounts will be pulled back and the good times will retreat. Don't take your customers or the boomtime for granted. You still hear people say not to worry as the economy is different this time. History does repeat itself.