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Dec 27, 2013 11:27 AM

Why are "Westernized" restaurants so much more expensive than ethnic places?

In general, it seems "Westernized" restaurants are always so much more expensive than ethnic eats. Whether these restaurants serve American/European food or whether they offer a "Western" take on Asian or Latin food, it seems that there is a universal minimum of how much each person has to spend at these types of places. In an ethnic place, it is easy to get out spending less than $20 and feeling full. Nowadays, it's very difficult to get out of a gentrified type restaurant without spending at least $30 a person and that's with choosing items in the menu that are hopefully filling.

The first thing people would say is different would be the atmosphere. It costs money to have some sort of atmosphere. Next thing would be marketing costs. Then that leaves rent which may be more expensive if these restaurants are in prime neighborhoods, but doesn't explain restaurants in less gentrified areas of Broooklyn or Queens. One could argue that food quality may be slightly better too. In terms of wages, these restaurants pay the same minimum too and just have servers count on tips. Considering that in ethnic places, servers don't get as much in tips, it could even be that they need to get paid more wages.

With all these differences, though, it is still hard to justify the significant cost difference. Is it just because people are willing to pay more for these places? Is it because owners of "Westernized" restaurants demand a higher net income for themselves than owners of ethnic places?

I was just thinking too that a factor could be turnover in that places with nicer atmosphere experience a lower turnover. Can this problem be solved then by offering the same prices as ethnic places with the same nice atmosphere but just setting a one-hour time limit for diners?

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  1. I would say that in many Asian cuisines anyway the meat isn't a huge part of the dish so the cost is lower.

    1 Reply
    1. re: c oliver

      True, but given the overall portion size of Asian food, I would argue that the overall meat content is pretty much the same as a Westernized meal. It's just broken into many smaller pieces or chunks.

    2. Not sure what you mean by "Westernized". Do you mean food from countries dominated historically by Roman Catholic/Protestant Christianity? A great many Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants in Manhattan are what I would call Westernized -- or better yet, Americanized. Ditto Greek and Turkish. Go to those countries and you will be surprised the people there aren't eating "Turkish" food.

      Many "ethnic" places in the Tri-State area barely pay their immigrant labor at all. They give them housing and food and not much more. It's like indentured servitude. Even if they get salaries they get no benefits. A lot of help is undocumented. Those "savings" get passed on to you!

      Also, a great deal of "ethnic" cooking does not involve serving you a hunk of meat or line caught fish in the middle of the plate surrounded by a sparse arrangement of non-meat foodstuffs. Vegetables predominate in "ethnic" dishes and you only have bits of cheap cuts of meat and frozen seafoods. (One of the reasons you feel full is that vegetables are more filling.) "Ethnic" food also is spicier and more aromatic and is unfamiliar to local tastebuds, so you can get away with using less than optimal ingredients (and still hook American customers with added sugar and fat). "Ethnic" chefs also have their own lines of supply for ingredients and spices from home in volume at cheap prices. They are not going to the farmer's market in Union Square and selecting handfuls of "curated" produce at a small fortune per ounce.

      Finally, a lot of storefront "ethnic places" do not occupy prime real estate, another reason menu prices are low. They may also have ways of hiding receipts and profits in order to dodge taxes. Most customers paying for a $20 meal pay in cash, not by credit card. More "savings" for you!

      By the way, there are zillions of places in Manhattan serving American food at highly affordable prices. (And increasingly places serving "ethnic" food at astronomical prices). Who knows how many Manhattan Chowhounders every week eat at places with menus you would find anywhere in America at $20 per head? But the majority of the chatter here is about $200 per head meals (with menus you can also find in every major city in America).

      In any market for anything, prices are ultimately set by what people will pay for it. If the point of your post is to question whether the offensively high prices charged by many Manhattan restaurants is "justified" by anything at all -- good for you! A lot of prices for inferior food are inflated just to trick people into thinking "this must be good or it wouldn't cost so much!" And just like private school tuitions are often set to make sure the school stays "exclusive" and those deemed to be socially inferior are priced out, Manhattan restaurants do it too, even when they are serving crap. (Chefs want to send their kids to private school too!) The point of cheap immigrant food is to stay cheap to keep pulling in its main customers. The point of absurdly expensive food is pretty much the same, looking through the other end of the telescope.

      3 Replies
      1. re: barberinibee

        By Westernized, I meant either typical restaurants that serve American/New-American/Continental type food or even restaurants that serve Asian food but are owned by Western people. Examples that come to mind are Khe Yo, Uncle Boons, Red Farm in NYC. Places where you probably find the exact or similar dish at an ethnic place for $10-15, while their restaurants serve it for $25.

        In terms of wages, don't most places (even fancy ones) pay their servers the $2 or so minimum then have them rely on tips? That doesn't like much compared to what authentic ethnic places pay. Even if it's $0, that's only a $2 difference.

        In terms of ingredients, I agree there are many awesome restaurants out there that are sourcing from farmer's markets or nearby farms. But then again, I would bet a lot of them still source from convenient Sysco.

        At the end of the day, I agree it's really what people are willing to pay. As long as there is a class of people willing to spend $30-40 a head per meal on a regular basis, owners looking to earn more would always try to aim for this slice of the pie vs the high volume immigrant market. I certainly know enough people willing to pay this mark up instead of eating at a white-lights place even if the food is exactly the same or even better. Just makes me sad.

        1. re: krystle920

          "At the end of the day, I agree it's really what people are willing to pay. As long as there is a class of people willing to spend $30-40 a head per meal on a regular basis, owners looking to earn more would always try to aim for this slice of the pie vs the high volume immigrant market. "

          And to further that point, where I am (Vancouver) is one of the eating havens in N. America, esp. for Asian foods. Over the past 5 years or so there's been about a half dozen or so new Chinese/Asian restaurants endeavored to take their offerings "upscale" (petit portions, artful plating, fancy dish names, higher prices) even though the basic ingredients and prep techniques were still largely "traditional". AFAIK none of those restos have remained in business after about 2-3 years.

        2. re: barberinibee

          I think that a lot of what you say is true. But, I differ on your spiciness comment. "American" tastes overall are quite a bit spicier than a lot of the countries supplying the US with immigrants--Latin America comes to mind, a long with much of the Mediterranean. Perhaps some parts of East Asia and Mexico have spicier tastes.

        3. Because their FOH and kitchen staffs expect to be paid living wages.

          1. Also, because building out and maintaining stylish dining rooms costs money.

            1. One of the most expensive restaurants in NYC (if not the MOST expensive) is Masa. Purely Japanese. How come Thai and Chinese (e.g.) qualify as ethnic and Japanese doesn't?

              Also, while many restaurants pay very little, some ethnic places (especially smaller ones) may be run by a family and pay no wages at all (share the profit).

              14 Replies
              1. re: plf515

                Gosh, just imagine if Masa was "Westernized" ...

                1. re: plf515

                  Yep. I ate Asian food tonite was $50 pp. Ate Japanese last night was $150pp. Yes there are inexpensive Asian or Ethnic places, and part of reason is just what Sneakeater said, low wages, also low rents. But there are also inexpensive "western" places, Papaya King, 1000's of pizza places ( oh i guess that's ethnic),,Stage, B&H Dairy ( perhaps ethnic in a way), Veselka, Cornerstone, BBQ, and there are inexpensive Indian restaurants on 6th St., Inexpensive Chinese in Chinatown, but also expensive "ethnic' like 15 East, Kyo Ya, Hakkasan, Jungsik, etc

                  1. re: plf515

                    That is an interesting insight. Japanese restaurants are almost always expensive, especially when it's run by Japanese people. Even when it is run by Chinese people, these restaurants are still more expensive than Chinese restaurants.

                    It doesn't make sense but there seems to be an agreed upon price for things. I.e.

                    Chinese takeout - ~$5 lunch specials, $5-8 dinner

                    Indian places - $10 lunch buffet, $15-20 dinner entrees

                    Thai places - $10 lunch special, $10-15 dinner entrees

                    Chinese owned sushi places - $10-15 lunch special, $15-20 dinner

                    I agree it's really based on what people are used to and what they are willing to pay for. There is no reason we can't have ubiquitous Indian takeouts serving $5 meals especially when their food can just sit and stay just as good in huge containers, vs. Chinese food that really need to be cooked for each order.

                    1. re: krystle920

                      That is an interesting insight. Japanese restaurants are almost always expensive, especially when it's run by Japanese people. Even when it is run by Chinese people, these restaurants are still more expensive than Chinese restaurants.

                      Go Go Curry?

                      Cheaper than most NYC Chinese take-out joints.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Do teriyaki fast food places count as Japanese? Or are they 'Westernized'?

                        1. re: paulj

                          I would consider them 'westernized'.

                          1. re: paulj

                            In my opinion, most of them are not Japanese for sure. Why? Because many of these places actually do not use traditional teriyaki sauce.

                            As the article has stated " In Japan, teriyaki is a mix of soy sauce, sake and the rice wine mirin, which imparts a subtle sweetness. In Seattle, subtlety gets short shrift. Cooks sweeten with white sugar and pineapple juice. They thicken with cornstarch and peanut butter. Ginger and garlic go into the mix, because of the Korean ancestry of many cooks."

                            I would call these Terkiyaki places as "Americanized:"

                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                More or less 'Americanized' than the 'ethnic' places that the OP is talking about (Italian-American, Chinese-American, Mexican-American)? If the owner/cooks are Somali, Korean, Mexican or Vietnamese, is it American or ethnic?

                                1. re: paulj

                                  <If the owner/cooks are Somali, Korean, Mexican or Vietnamese, is it American or ethnic?>

                                  In all honesty, this is a very tough question to answer because there are a lot of gray areas. However, I won't solely judge the "Americanization" based on the owners or the chefs. Sometime it has to do with the audience -- the intended customers. For example, I consider California Sushi roll despite that it was invented and introduced by Japanese chef(s).

                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    What if the California rolls are exported to other countries and become the "go-to" sushi. Are they Japanese, American, or "Western"?

                                    1. re: Wawsanham

                                      The what-if question can be a bit vague, so I rather not get into it. At this point, I can say that I do consider California roll as an Americanized sushi (I know people who won't even call it sushi).

                                      The what-if questions depend too much on the specifics. If California roll is to reintroduced to Japan, would they not change it? What kind of changes will be applied? Will Americans still eat the modified California rolls? Will the Japanese eat it? There are ways too many questions for these hypothetical situations.

                                      For example, ramen. Ramen is known to have introduced from China to Japan. Many Japanese still proudly advertize its Chinese root, but no Chinese would consider it as a Chinese food anymore because it has been changed from its original form. It is certainly a Japanese food at this point in time.

                                2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  I have had teriyaki sauce that tastes like and has a texture like syrup.

                          2. re: plf515

                            Once upon a time there WERE a lot a cheap Japanese restaurants in the US, esp. on the West Coast. Their owners were interred and their businesses seized by the govt. in WWII - and many were sold to other restauranteurs. (Many of these were Chinese-American and thus, the originally Japanese fortune cookie became a Chinese-American thing - detailed in Jennifer 8 Lee's book mentioned in this thread.)
                            Once upon a time little cheap French bistros were as common in eastern US cities as pizzerias are today. You could get a chop and two sides for around fifty cents, plus a free glass of wine. The wine was a big part of the draw, and thus Prohibition drove most of them out of business. German beer gardens featuring plenty of cheap food and drink were another Prohibition casualty. This I learned from reading Herbert Asbury's book on Prohibition, The Great Experiment (out of print for reasons that escape me). He has a whole long section reminiscing about eating and drinking in NYC before Prohibition.