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The French Laundry or spread the wealth?

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We will be in Napa and Sonoma in early November. I was able to secure a lunch reservation at The French Laundry for our trip.

We love creative, interesting, and most of all, delicious food across the range of categories from food trucks to top-10 dining experiences (such as The Inn at Little Washington). I know from reading the boards here that there are practically endless options for quality dining in this area of California and narrowing down options for a dining plan is even more difficult than choosing which wineries to tour.

So my question is: Should we spend a large portion of our budget for the trip on the one meal at TFL forcing us to be fairly frugal the balance of our trip or would we be better served to skip TFL - which would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience - in favor of having 3-4 nicer meals?

Among the options that would enter the mix would be Barndiva, REDD, The Girl and the Fig, Sante, FARM at the Caneros Inn, Ad Hoc (probably on a Monday night for the fried chicken), and Mustards just to name a few. We'll also be spending a few days in SF proper (greatly enjoyed Baker & Banker on our last visit).

Thank you in advance.

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  1. For what it's worth, Becky, I think you would have a lot more fun by visiting different restaurants, rather than splurging on the FL. By the way, I have had excellent meals at Redd and Mustards, and an odd, uneven meal at Girl and the Fig. For a casual meal, you might consider The Fig in Glen Ellen; fairly priced, good food, and no corkage. Enjoy your trip. P.S. forgot to mention, had a very, very good dinner at Barndiva.

    5 Replies
    1. re: pinotho

      Cancel French Laundry. It is overpriced, not worth it. You can take that same amount of money and have three memorable meals elsewhere for the same price. What you will remember about FL is that you paid too much and were over served. One or two of the dishes are fabulous, the rest are ok. So, my money says: spread it out.

      1. re: tstrum

        I will say overpriced was not my experience at all. I could see thinking it was not worth it because that is a subjective judgment based on how far one had to travel, and how much a stretch of a budget it is etc. However, as "overpriced" I certainly did not feel that way. The service is unparalleled, the ingredients are the best money can buy, the wine list is one of the best in the United States.

        It may not suit everyone's palate - may be too safe in its choices to be truly memorable for the adventurous - but the idea that TFL is some sort of tourist trap - where they charge lots of money just because they can - I've never seen any indication of that at all. You see the money in the ingredients, in the space, in the service, in the cellar.

        1. re: goldangl95

          Sure and a lot of profit for the owner. The costs of space, ingredients and labor are 1/3 the total price. Total margin= 66%. Seems a bit high to me. But I suppose whatever the market will bear....

          1. re: tstrum

            Restaurant business has low margin.

            1. re: tstrum

              Where are you getting these numbers from? I believe fairly recently, the French Laundry actually lost money as a restaurant. It is very useful in terms of branding for cook books, Thomas Keller's other restaurants etc. But I wasn't aware of large profit margins and certainly not such ridiculously high ones.

      2. Rebecky,
        This is a really good question, and makes me think a lot about the ideas behind value. However, getting a res at FL is quite a difficult thing, so my reaction is to urge you to go to FL, then skrimp during the rest of your trip. If you plan to return to the area within a few years, you can enjoy many of the other places. Chances are that FL will be a priceless memory for you. But then, that is only my guess.

        9 Replies
        1. re: Tripeler

          If you can comfortably afford to go, I would go to the French Laundry while it still has that caché and drive to be excellent.

          I went to the French Laundry for dinner before the current chef took over. My thoughts then was that it was a perfect, cozily extravagant meal. Not all dishes were wildly creative, nor were all dishes pitch perfect, but enough of the dishes were both that I had a very enjoyable, flawless experience.

          The dinner was something I could afford, but I remember thinking that if I was still in grad school, and had to save for a year to justify going, I would have been disappointed.

          The French Laundry is a great experience, but it is, in the end, a restaurant that has to cater to many who expect certain standard proteins and dishes, as well as customers who are not that adventurous but want to say they ate at a Michelin three star. So, keep that in mind.

          1. re: goldangl95

            French Laundry's chef has been Thomas Keller since he bought it in 1994. The #2 has changed a few times.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Yea,I meant the chef de cuisine (which I consider the "chef"). I realize Thomas Keller still stops by the French Laundry occasionally, and that the French Laundry and Per Se are linked in various ways, and his tastes and aesthetics and ideas are very much evident so it's not an absentee celebrity chef issue - but my understanding is that Thomas Keller does give his chefs de cuisine a lot of reign to do what they wish. And from reports, the food under Hollingsworth is distinct from Lee's.

              1. re: goldangl95

                Judging by the menus at the places opened by former #2s, they didn't have that much free rein at TFL.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Completely disagree, Robert. The #2s open their own restaurants to spread their wings, but having eaten there a number of times over the past decade (HAVE YOU?), I can assure that both Corey and Timothy have a great deal of influence over their preparations. Corey added a significant number of Asian-influenced dishes and, now, Timothy has taken the menu in a remarkably different direction with more garden- and produce-inspired dishes.

                  Just because they move on to do entirely different things hardly means their influence is not felt at the restaurants.

                  1. re: CarrieWas218

                    I haven't eaten there since the Schmitts sold it to Keller. Yesterday's menu does look lighter and more digestible than the last time I looked at it.

                    http://www.tkrg.org/upload/fl_menu.pdf

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      My FL meals under Tim were far more innovative and interesting than those I've had under Corey - but I appreciate more farm-sourced ingredients than the Asian-influenced "technique-driven" dishes. Perhaps that is why I didn't appreciate Benu as much as others have as well.

                      The difference is that restaurants like AQ, Coi, Manresa, and Crenn are all stepping up to the technique plate and able to produce what used to be unique to FL for less money.

                      I also think that because other establishments like this ARE able to produce exceptional and interesting meals, the bar and experience is higher and those reporting back are not having "the once-in-a-lifetime" meal because there are so many similarities at other restaurants.

                      1. re: CarrieWas218

                        Whatever the reason, if you were researching where to eat a once-in-a-lifetime blowout meal in the SF Bay Area with an open mind and no Michelin guide, 10-15 years ago TFL might have been an easy answer, but today it seems an unlikely choice.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I will say for the French Laundry the service, sommelier/wine list etc, making you feel like a valued customer and the whole package is two steps above any other tasting menu type place I've been in CA.

                          Not in a fawning way just impeccably done.

        2. For me, the question would come down to:
          1) How frugal? If you say you can't have any other $50/pp dinner anywhere else, it's not worth it. There's just too much good stuff at the $80/$90/pp price range. If it means no other $120/pp dinners,but all other meals can be $50/pp, maybe it's worth it.
          2) How many michelin-3-star places have you been to? How important is it to hit one?
          3) How much would it change your budget if you hit Saison or Medowood instead? Medowwood is also 3 stars, Saison I think is cooking better than the TFL meal I had a long time ago.

          2 Replies
          1. re: bbulkow

            I think the first two questions are excellent. As for the third, Saison and Meadowood are essentially the same price as TFL, so I don't see how it would change the budget. BTW, the Saison website is pretentious and unhelpful, but it does link to Open Table for reservations. Did they abandon the pre-paid ticket system?

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              Saison's chef counter uses the SeatMe ticket system. The dining room uses Opentable and requires a credit card when making the reservation.

          2. I would strongly recommend against the Girl and The Fig - not sure I've ever been so disappointed.

            If you're going to be in the city as well I would vote for multiple meals, La Folie for example is a much lower price point but incredible food. There are many others as well.

            1. Thanks so much to everyone for your input and additional recommendations. It sounds like it comes down to: do we have our hearts set on eating at TFL for the name/reputation/stars/bragging rights v. having a number of very enjoyable experiences at a range of restaurants. My inclination is the latter - will post a tentative itinerary here after consultation with SO. And, yes, we'll have 3 days in SF proper so opening up more options there is helpful. Thank you again.

              (Very sad to hear the negative reports on The Girl and the Fig - but we have more than enough other ideas to replace that on the list.)

              1 Reply
              1. re: rebecky75

                We had a lovely and delicious lunch at G&F. It's a casual place right on the square. Not "fine dining" IMO.

              2. Keep your reservation at TFL! It's worth it and you will be able to leave Yountville with no regrets.

                1. I would say spread it out if it is going to cause you issues or forces you to miss multiple other things you want to enjoy. On the other hand, TFL is not over-priced and it is not over-rated in the times that I have been.

                  Had a great lunch at Barndiva last month and have always had good luck at Mustards..

                  1. Chris Jones, long-time exechef @Girl & Fig and sibling Estate, left in summer 2011 to go cook at Brix, where we got a superb lunch in May this year that was far better than anything Mustards, La Toque, or Don Giovanni offered. Skip the pizza and go for the sandwiches; they were amazing. Jones is doing a lot of canning and preserving (the restaurant has a huge garden); his curry pickled onions were literally to die for, on my lamb burger. If he sold them I'd buy six jars to go!

                    We really love La Folie, but our last visit (fourth in 13 months) was the worst by far. Two big parties were taking up the kitchen's attention, and a number of irritating flaws, although minor, were evident in over half the dishes. But when LF is on.....mmmmm, yum!

                    Sure is a hard choice to be making, though. I think bbulkow summed it up well. Either way, I'm sure you'll have a great time and we'll look forward to a report when you finish your trip!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: jaiko

                      I second the recommendation for Brix. Mustards seems to have gone down in quality.

                      1. re: tjinsf

                        Wow! I never choose Brix when I can get into Mustards, but I might! Also, I want to put in a plug for Market.

                        1. re: Shrinkrap

                          I think Mustards is just an excuse for giant hunks of grilled meat with not much else going for it... Brix, at least, has 1/2 price happy hours with enough on that menu to satisfy at a discount!

                          1. re: CarrieWas218

                            I went to Brix a few times when it first opened, but havent been for years. I have to admit, I only go to Mustards with people from out of town, because there is something for most, but I usually like the specials, especially the deserts and the fish tostadas. When there is no tempting appetizer special, I get the raw tuna on those cracker thingys.

                            I'm hungry. Checking opentable.....

                    2. I've been to TFL three times in the last five years. I've never found the food to be anything other than excellent but if going there means you can't sample a range of places perhaps it's better to forgo it. I do think it's worth the price point in terms of service, quality of ingredients and the dishes themselves. A question for you is if you can't do it on this trip, would you be able to do it on another trip? I didn't go to TFL for years because I knew I would be in the bay and I wanted to wait until it wasn't an economic stretch. However when I've visited other cities and countries, I have splurged on that one meal and haven't regretted it all as I probably wouldn't have the opportunity again.
                      I like Cook, REDD and Brix. The quality at The Girl and the Fig has been hit and miss, I've had some excellent meals and some that the food was really poorly prepared and bland.

                      1. Absolutely spread the wealth

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: jinet12

                          Service at TFL is fantastic, but the atmosphere in the restaurant is a bit stuffy. I just had the tasting menu paired with some serious wines and I have had better individual dishes at several Michelin one star places. The oyster and pearls and butter poached lobster were outstanding, but everything else was just good. The duck was tough and under sauced. The deserts were just ordinary. We ate at Barndiva in Healdsburg the next night and their tasting menu blew TFL away for $250 pp all in with wine versus the $750 we spent at TFL. Sometimes I find that 3 star places rest on their laurels a bit. One star places still have something to prove, so they seem to work harder to blow your mind. Oh well, no regrets, I had to try TFL.

                        2. We gave up the reservation at TFL - and here is what we have planned instead (based heavily on suggestions here - thanks to all). If there are any glaring omissions or mis-steps, please let me know.

                          REDD
                          Cocina Latina
                          Brix
                          Scopa
                          The Fig
                          Nopa
                          SPQR
                          The Alembic

                          May try to squeeze in Barndiva while we're up in wine country and possibly State Bird Provisions in SF proper.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: rebecky75

                            Just a heads up. I understand that State Bird is about the hardest place to get into these days with their recent award(s).

                          2. Go to the French Laundry!! It is a wonderful experience & well worth it. Food, service, wine, atmosphere. Especially for lunch. Relax, slow down, smile, and enjoy the time there. It is a different experience from all the other creative/interesting/delicious tasting menus I've done at wonderful restaurants. Memories to treasure. (Not bragging rights.) You are so fortunate to have a reservation.

                            There is lots of wonderful food in napa / sonoma at lower price points to balance out the cost of the french laundry. I would do that in a heartbeat. (The other restaurants you mention are all very pleasurable, but 3-4 meals at those would not match the 1 lovely afternoon at the french laundry.)

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: RBofSF

                              RBofSF - seems the OP already let the reservation go... A bit too late to the discussion in that regard.

                              1. re: CarrieWas218

                                oooops. So sorry! I thought I'd read the whole thread. Rebecky: You will have such a great trip and great food. YUM on your choices. (And to contradict my last post & corroborate dropping the reservation - the less-good-experience I had at the french laundry was the time I was worried about the cost - i couldn't relax & isn't that the point of enjoying lovely food?)