Tasting menu prices in Bay Area
In Michael Bauer's column today, he discussed the ever-rising prices of fixed-price menus:
Over the years, I've been to many high-end restaurants with tasting menus for special occasions, and why the price has always been steep (usually around ~$100-150/pp before wine), it seems to have risen quite dramatically in the last year or so with many places getting close to the $200/pp mark. It seems to be that whenever a restaurant gains a Michelin star (particularly for their second/third), they raise their prices significantly, such as with Meadowood, Saison, Benu, Atelier Crenn. I've only gone over the $200/pp threshold once at the French Laundry, which I considered a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience, but I just can't imagine how a many of these restaurants that are a lot less established can command these kind of prices. Is the economy just getting that much better?
It's kind of disheartening since there's so many restaurants I would like to try, but since we only get to go out to these type of places a few times a year for anniversary/birthdays, by the time we get to the next place on the list the price has gone up quite significantly.
I don't have a lot to add. Silicon Valley is doing extremely well right now, and there's a lot of money in the top 5% or 1% of the Bay Area population chasing a limited amount of luxury goods and services.
It's not just in food, it's in wine, clothes, shoes, hotels, weddings. It's hard for the middle-tier to succeed, as the middle-tier is what fails in a downturn.
The goal is to try to get into that untouchable echelon of the French Laundry or say Hermes handbags. You want customers/users who are less likely to be hurt by recessions. It's a go big or go home type mindset.
For example, in some blog post or review, the author noted that the table adjacent to him (or her) at Benu had flown internationally in part to eat there. You want those type of customers.
I think there are a few factors.
1. there are a higher concentration of millionaires under the age of 35 in the bay area than almost anywhere else in the world and they have money to burn and like to eat out and take friends. Even for those who who aren't at that level, there are so many business folks who go to these restaurant and the corps pick up the tab.
2. judging from recent meals at Atelier Creen, Benu, Saison many of the people are food tourists who visit SF specifically to eat there. It's like high real estate, your target market is international. Even the "locals" we knew at Atelier Creen weren't Americans but Canadians and Indians who work in Silicon Valley.
3. they compare themselves to the NY and European city scenes and want to price themselves the same. While our population is small with the large wealthy population and tourists they may be able to sustain it.
Personally I think they are going overboard making the menues so long that it's too much food regardless of the price and that having only having higher end price points and only tasting menu really limits the appeal to locals.
Also, these restaurants are competing on quality (defined broadly), and not on price. When that happens, prices rise, since demand is driven by quality which adds to a restaurant's cost --same phenomenon can be seen in higher education and certain types of health care, but that is for another discussion board. For example, it seems there has been a trend towards adding more and more amuse-bouches to fill in between the courses listed on the menus. Customers like this because they think they are getting something for "free," and the amuse-bouches also tend to be sort of fun/exotic/creative. Preparation of these additional items drives up cost in ingredients, kitchen capacity, waitstaff time, etc. These also take what used to be a 2 hour experience and turn it into a 3 or 4 hour experience, meaning less turnover at the tables. And of course the trend towards locally grown, organic/free-range/grass fed/gold plated/etc contributes to increased food costs, which would affect all menu items, not just the tasting menu.
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I think one thing that had happened, though, was that until this year tasting menu prices hadn't gone up as fast as "regular" menu prices. It was getting so that you could spend at least as much for three courses at a place like Boulevard as you would for a tasting menu.
Also, tasting menus have gotten trendy -- the number of restaurants offering tasting menus has gone up dramatically. So now there's a bigger range of prices for tasting menus as they try to differentiate themselves.