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Jan 29, 2014 09:20 PM

At what point does the price of a meal overcome value?

Just wondering how important the quality of a meal is compared to the cost. For me, I ALWAYS go for quality and originality first. Where do you stand?

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  1. first, i need to know whether this meal will be paid for by an expense account or will I, personally, be paying for it.

    secondly, does the meal have a secondary purpose? close a deal? make time with a new romantic interest? celebration with a large party?

    the most "pure" meals are those that i go to alone, pay for myself, with the sole purpose of having wonderful food (my taste ONLY counts).

    1. Great meals need not be really expensive. But cheap meals are rarely great. Tasty, sure...but not great.

      The company has a lot to do with the wonderfulness of the meal.

      1. I have an obsession about where foods are sourced from and how fresh they actually are. I have to have quality and I am willing to pay for it. To me a great chef is one who can preserve the integrity of the foods he works with by serving them in as close to their natural state as possible. As unadulterated as possible. Allow the food to speak for itself.

        21 Replies
        1. re: MamasCooking

          I literally could not care less about cost. For me a meal is about expectations. A great meal is a meal that far surpasses my expectation. I've been pleasantly surprised by 4 or 5 restaurants in the area, usually because of a few basic details. Proper seasoning which seems rare now-a-days, presentation, and cooking to proper temp especially fish.

          Here is one aspect of dining that confuses me. Why is value (in my area) directly tied to portion size? For me, I despise microwaved food. Additionally, if I can't finish my food, I've clearly been given to much. Why should I have to over serve my guests to give perceived value?

          1. re: Mattromine

            I am in N California right on the northern tip of the growing belt (San Joaquin Valley)near Lodi which is wine country. I have enough disposable income that I can pay for what I want or need but other food lovers may not have that privilege and so equate large portions sizes with high quality. Who knows? I am usually so preoccupied with sleuthing out the details about my own foods I rarely pay attention to what others are doing:)If you are in the Great Lakes area I assume you must have access to a lot of local fish then? Fresh fish I can only dream of out here:)

            1. re: MamasCooking

              Actually, you'd be surprised! The only access I have to lake fish is spotty right now and is basically limited to lake trout, ruby trout, perch, walleye and whitefish. It really depends on the day if those varieties are available. Right now we utilize a locally farmed rainbow trout (4 miles from restaurant) and we bring it in live which is amazing! You can't even catch and eat fish this fresh unless you eat it on the boat :-) currently I am working with the health dept and local agencies to allow us to use many foraged plants and wild edibles, but it seems to be problematic in my area.

              All these add to the value I place in my food.

              1. re: Mattromine

                I agree on foraging. My late FIL foraged everything. I forage wild blackberries. The fish situation is very fortunate and having any access to fresh lake fish is wonderful. Good for the body and great for the soul to eat like that! Decades ago when I was a kid in the late 60's we had access to so much good natural food here in California. Now I have to *hunt* it down:) Do you cook also? I just discovered Hank Shaw's blog online and plan to order some of his books about :hunter/angler/forager/gardener and cook!!!!

            2. re: Mattromine

              "I literally could not care less about cost."

              So a thousand dollar dinner for two would be fine? How nice for you.

              1. re: c oliver

                Yeah, I was wondering where the OP lives. I don't have the luxury to not care at all about cost.

                1. re: LeoLioness

                  actually with that statement, you may be surprised to hear that I live in Imlay City, MI, a small town of approx 5000, most of which are low to middle class. I certainly do not have an excess of money. I am a chef, so when i eat out, cost is not an issue. actually c oliver, I ate at alinea in chicago in september, which was over $500 per person. wine pairings alone were over $200 per person. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Service like you can't even imagine. Mind boggling dishes like duck 5-ways served with a platter 60 garnishes.... all of which are made "molecularly" and which is a sole persons only job to create. I certainly appreciate and can relate with the sheer number of hours and precision required to create that dish. In addition, i had a meal at AOC in copenhagen while i was a stagier at NOMA, which was over $250 and was equally amazing.

                  The key is that when i dine, I DINE. I only do it on occasion and i look for insane quality and originality.

                  1. re: Mattromine

                    Please believe me when I say good for you. Sincerely. I just can't get my brain around that kind of money. And more power to you if that's what floats your boat :)

                    1. re: c oliver

                      obviously that type of meal is not for the casual diner. But the service is UNBELIEVABLE. Honestly, it is like a choreographed dance. To serve 15-20+ courses, minutes apart and with the precision they have is incredible. most often, the restaurant with incredibly high prices actually lose money because of the sheer amount of man power required to produce the dishes. El Bulli, if you are unfamiliar, was the worlds best restaurant many times, are single handedly responsible for "modernist" cuisine, and LOST money for something like 8 straight years.

                      as you said, whatever floats your boat

                      1. re: Mattromine

                        Our splurge in Barcelona last year was Tickets Bar, the first of the new Adria places. "Only" 150 Euros (that's a lot for us) and worth every dime. So, yeah, I get it; I just can't bring myself to do it :)

                        1. re: c oliver

                          it can be nerve-racking :) but i love it!! just out of curiosity.... what did you have at tickets??

                          heres a photo of myself and twin brother with Ferran Adria in the kitchen of NOMA. It was crazy to meet him. He is a kitchen god :)

                          1. re: Mattromine

                            Here ya go!


                            Somewhere I have a picture of us with Albert, who was there that night.

                        2. re: Mattromine

                          Is Alinea a tasting-menu-only restaurant? It sounds like it from your description...

                          If so my honest opinion has always been that the service you might get at a tasting-menu-only restaurant isn't particularly impressive, because by virtue of the fact that every part of the meal can be planned and rehearsed ad nauseam by the staff, they can probably repeat it with fairly high precision. When you're doing exactly the same thing, again and again, you can get very accurate at it - and it also eliminates many of the variables and unknowns that can affect less-structured meals. Service at such places may be very polished, but at least for me it would be hard for it to reach the level of the unbelievable.

                          I think it's a LOT more impressive when the staff can deliver a first-rate experience in a completely a la carte environment, or one that offers a mix of that and fixed-menu options, where what different diners may be asking for, when, could be wildly variable.

                          If we take the "dinner as theatre" example that was given (although to be honest the idea of going to dinner as theatre to me sounds like a strange concept), then one might say the former (fixed-menu) might be the equivalent of a virtuoso Shakespeare performance. The latter might then be the equivalent of delivering a Shakespeare-quality play - as an *improv* performance. The first I'd think of as merely being professional. The second I'd think of as unmitigated genius.

                          1. re: AlexRast

                            If the service is perfect, how can it be more perfect? If it takes more effort on the part of the staff, so what? I don't get what you're saying.

                            1. re: AlexRast

                              When I think of the concept of dinner as "theatre", I am not just thinking of staff performance (although that contributes), I am thinking more of the environment of the restaurant, getting dressed up, having an interactive experience with the staff and not simply being "served". The "flow" over several hours. How much improv vs rehearsed performance of the staff is nothing I have ever considered, if it goes well.

                              1. re: AlexRast

                                You're getting a little carried away with the analogy. The theater comes from the chef's vision and presentation. There may be a theme that ties several dishes together or added sensory elements that may set the mood that aren't necessarily going to be part of a meal in a different type of restaurant. Some elements are fanciful, others provide a real enhancement.

                                The way the service figures in has a little to do with rehearsal/training but is still based in the common elements that all good service reflects, although attentiveness is the key. When you have so many courses , you really need to be on top of your game because each table works at its own pace. You don't want to rush anyone but you also don't want there to be too great a lag between courses, so you need to communicate effectively with the chefs.

                                Case in point, I attended a meal at a tasting menu restaurant with about ten people. A waiter came out to confirm everyone's dietary restrictions (about 3 or 4 variations among the 10 diners) as well as the level of spicing for certain dishes. There were about 4 servers attending to our table and they never rushed any course, and delivered each (visually indistinguishable) dish to the right diner flawlessly. That only happens when you're dealing with people who know what they're doing, fixed menu or not.

                                1. re: ferret

                                  I realise that the analogy to theatre isn't intended to be exact. I apologise also if by then casting a further analogy to theatre people were confused. I have an INCREDIBLY difficult time giving examples because, fundamentally, I don't work by example, and don't understand illustration by example. It seems therefore that every time I attempt to give an example to others (recognising that a lot of people DO work by example), they're either misunderstood by being applied too specifically, or misunderstood by being applied too generally - even though I never seem to be able to see how they're different in any way from examples other people give - which nobody ever seems to confuse with respect to the degree of specificity being illustrated therein. Any pointers, anyone?

                                  Back to the question of service at a tasting-menu-only place. My experience is that such forms of highly structured service, where the courses come out in exact, pre-set sequence, offer little or no opportunity for the staff to be able to display initiative or the ability to adapt to unexpected situations, special requests, and other cases when things are more variable. That to me is a test that is required in order to be able to think of the service as great.

                                  The other thing, which I'll admit is personal, is that my experience is that service in such places inevitably ends up slightly generic and mechanical, from the simple fact that the staff are repeating the same thing over and over. They may be quite *personable*, that's not what I mean, it's just that the steps and actions are so clearly rehearsed that you feel like you're being dealt with by a troupe of actors rather than real people. Don't misunderstand, I personally don't expect that people treat me as a long-lost friend or close family member - I'm not. There's always going to be a certain level of impersonality in that sense. The point is rather, that I'm not likely to commend the staff particularly strongly, on the basis of service, at an establishment where the type of service you're going to get has (probably) been intricately choreographed in advance.

                                  1. re: AlexRast

                                    I don't know where you have been, but most of the tasting menu places I've been to know how to cater to differences among the diners. As ferret pointed out, there are places that will ask each diner their preferences. Dishes will be tailored to those parameters. If some thing is off, the staff will notice it and inquire as to whether something is wrong. If it is, they will swiftly act to correct it if possible. We've actually had conversations with these supposed human like automatons. Didn't get canned responses from them either.

                                    I remember one evening at EMP where I had a great conversation with the wine somm. Based on what we talked about, she said that she wanted me to try a wine that she said might be risky but she thought we would like it. She was wrong. We didn't like it, we loved it. Great service in a temple of dining theater.

                                    I've actually moved away from tasting menus as I am finding it less enjoyable to spend 3-4 hours on a meal. But to think that such a professionally trained staff can't react to something out of the script? Really? As though your local no name spot will be more likely to do a better job when your server shows up and says with a big grin "what's up guys?"

                                    Its ok not to like the whole tasting menu milieu, but to damn it because the service is not capable of dealing with individual diners' needs seems odd to me.

                                    1. re: AlexRast

                                      You've ignored the remainder of my post. You presume the process to be mechanical because the courses are decided in advance. The timing of these courses is controlled by the diners, not the servers, and many require immediate presentation (they're not sitting in a warming drawer waiting for the server to lazily meander to the kitchen). And there is also frequently the requirement that some elements do not conform to certain tastes/dietary restrictions. It's incumbent on the server to ensure that these requirements are met and the service of each dish is timed to the diner's pace. If it appears mechanical it's because someone (or rather a team of people) is working well and in synch.

                            2. re: Mattromine

                              I guess that answers my question to you about do you also cook:)? And BTW picture #3 looks like museum art!
                              How fun and amazing that all looks. Good for you.

                          2. re: c oliver

                            Reminds me of a suggestion I once heard - when asking for restaurant suggestions, be sure to question if they are being made from someone speaking from a business expense vs. personal payment basis. Many (most?) times, business expense dining doesn't match up to quality.

                      2. The cost doesn't matter to me much when I choose a place or order the food. It comes into play as to how I feel about going back. If I don't think I got a good value (regardless of price) then I won't go back. The same applies to a 200 dollar meal or a dollar taco. Value is a very subjective thing.

                        1. I can give you a firm answer to this question. No single serving meal is worth more than about $20 to me. Most of my all time favorite things to eat won't break $5. A bowl of Chinese sesame noodles. A taco al pastor from the stand down the street. A perfectly griddled onion burger at a good diner. A meal that costs $20 better be 10x as good as that $2 taco al pastor or it's a waste in my opinion.

                          29 Replies
                            1. re: RealMenJulienne

                              I totally respect this position, but totally disagree with it at the same time.

                              "Value" to "cost" ratio for any commodity is never a linear. If you expect a $20 meal to be 10x better than a $2 taco, you will always be disappointed. I cannot get a plate of pasta cooked correctly for $2 anywhere. I can get brilliant al pastor for $2 in a number of places. It also brings up the issue of location. Food in Mexico is cheaper than in the US. And certainly al pastor is better in Mexico. So how do we reconcile the increased US price for an often inferior taco? Is the US $2 al pastor taco a waste if the MX $1 al pastor taco is actually better? Hmmm.

                              But like I said, I love you point of view on this topic.

                              1. re: cacio e pepe

                                Good point, and it's true that we all have different points of diminishing returns. For me the point where incremental return is no longer worth it is in theory around $20 and in practice usually around $10. It's very rare that I've had a $20 meal which I consider to be worth the cost.

                                By the way, I regularly enjoy $2 plates of perfectly cooked pasta by making it myself at home. All the price mark-ups that restaurants tack on for rent, service, atmosphere, etc. are non-value adds for me.

                                1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                  So you must always eat at home. Because those numbers are insane in today's food market.

                                  1. re: Mattromine

                                    For example, in my restaurant we serve a hamburger for $12. That hamburger is completely handmade. We dry age the beef, grind the beef, make the bun from scratch using sourdough and wild yeast, make the ketchup make the mayonnaise make the steak sauce, hand cut the fries, make the pickle and use all local produce. We literally make no money on this burger. Not to mention the 3 year aged local cheddar at $16 per pound wholesale cost

                                    1. re: Mattromine

                                      For me, I cook that way at home- grassfed meats, handmade condiments, etc. I wouldn't go out and buy it. I tend to go out for very high end or very low end. I tend to skip the middle.
                                      High end when traveling for fun, low end around my town, middle at home.

                                      1. re: sedimental

                                        I do understand that and also agree for the most part. I don't really intentionally go to "middle of the road" places unless of course I am invited by others. My choice is the occasional super fine restaurant

                                        1. re: Mattromine

                                          Then I don't understand your comment about your burger.

                                          What I am saying, your burger might not be worth it to me, but a 2 dollar taco might be. That it has quality ingredients or that the restaurant loses money on it, is not of consequence to me and my perception of value.

                                          BTW, interesting topic :)

                                        2. re: sedimental

                                          A burger is usually the one reasonable priced item on a entree dish for cost of food to price asked.

                                          That burger sounds good! Made me hungry lol

                                      2. re: Mattromine

                                        Sounds like he eats more "street food" out and cooks more expensive food at home. I do that a lot as well.

                                        I tend to eat high end when on trips. I also go to "food cities" for weekends frequently-Vegas, Portland, Napa area, San Fran, and closer to my home -Vancouver BC and Seattle. I spend much, much more then -and I value it more than when I am just grabbing a bite because I am too tired or too late to cook.

                                        It's not just about the food, sometimes it is the situation, your mood or environment that affects perceived value.

                                        1. re: sedimental

                                          Sedimental, I think "high-end" is a bit nebulous, though. What is high-end versus mid-range? I think of myself as a big fan of mid-range restaurants, but would others consider them high-end, low-end, etc., based on the price point? Probably.

                                          1. re: cacio e pepe

                                            I guess I mean a restaurant where almost everyone would agree it was "high end". Prix fixe, tasting menus, wine pairings on offer, small plates, multiple courses, etc. not simply or *only*price point. At a high end place, you are getting value in the experience, service, atmosphere, presentation, in addition to the rest.

                                        2. re: Mattromine

                                          "All the price mark-ups that restaurants tack on for rent, service, atmosphere, etc. are non-value adds for me."

                                          Let me repeat my earlier statement in response to your inquiry, Mattromine.

                                          If i eat out, 9 times out of 10 it's to fulfill social obligations. Otherwise I'd much rather cook and eat at home.

                                          1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                            I'm with you on the 9 out of ten. I like my food enough that restaurants don't entice me much

                                        3. re: RealMenJulienne

                                          Sure, pasta is one of the things that I can cook well. Depending on the dish, I can get the price down to $2 a plate, easy. But it is absolutely worth it to me to pay $20 for a pasta dish that is prepared beautifully with excellent ingredients. That's where we differ, though. I find that restaurants *can* offer value add-ons.

                                          Now when I pay $20 for a dish that I know very well that I could prepare better with ease and much more cheaply, then I certainly feel ripped off.

                                          1. re: cacio e pepe

                                            Yes, that is where cooking skills really come into play. For some, there are not many mid range american restaurants that can compete with our home kitchen, so the value is rarely there.

                                            1. re: sedimental

                                              Just tacking this on here and not really directing it you, s :)

                                              Below is a link to a favorite restaurant. They make almost everything from scratch, source a ton locally, etc. I consider the menu "mid range" but wonder if others do. I'll also say that we don't order things like steak when we go out (like our own) so that keeps us from the very top of their prices. But I'd like to know if others think this menu (in Reno not NYC or SF) is high end or mid range?


                                              1. re: c oliver

                                                Mid range for what I can see, but it is a nice touch that they offer an inexpensive tasting menu.

                                                1. re: sedimental

                                                  I think mid range also and the quality of the food and the preparation and the service are top notch. So you don't have to spend a ton of money to get really superb food. But it's alright to :)

                                                  1. re: c oliver

                                                    Yes, I agree. I don't think I have seen anyone on this thread suggest you have to spend much money to get great food.

                                                    1. re: c oliver

                                                      And for me, I probably wouldn't go to that restaurant much. It wouldn't have value for me. I can make many of those things on the menu at home and most of the menu is not unique enough. That is NOT to suggest that the food isn't great.

                                                      1. re: sedimental

                                                        While I CAN and DO make pasta, I don't make it all that often and I NEVER make charcuterie (even though I have a book!) ............................... I just went back to their menu and realize that I make very little of what they make :) So that must be part of the reason. Their VPN pizza oven is reason enough!

                                                  2. re: c oliver

                                                    I consider that mid-range and I'm happy to eat at places like that often. I would most likely gravitate towards dishes that are time consuming since I'd be less likely to make them. For instance, I'd opt for the wild boar ragu rather than the spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and basil. One I can make, but requires a significant amount of time and energy to source the ingredients and prepare. The other I could probably make well while drunk.

                                                    1. re: cacio e pepe

                                                      And I probably have :) 'Course they do make ALL their pastas inhouse. I'm having trouble expressing myself in the context of this thread. I guess there are just too many factors so price and quality are two but other things come into play. Interesting thread.

                                                  3. re: sedimental

                                                    "Yes, that is where cooking skills really come into play."

                                                    Very much agree, combined with time available at hand and who you are eating with, the value fluctuates daily, well, even during a meal.

                                                    1. re: Kurtis

                                                      I'd agree mid range. Standard for any Italian restaurant that is shooting for any modern twist. I spent time in a restaurant with a nearly identical menu in Birmingham mi. Not to knock it in any way.

                                                      Btw everyone, just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for all of the great comments. All valid in their own rights

                                            2. re: RealMenJulienne

                                              My (entree) price point is also about $20. Beyond that, it's a sign the portions will be so large as to make me ill. (I'll never understand paying a premium for reheated left overs.)

                                              1. re: Clams047

                                                Clam: You may be right in some cases but in my experience like out here in Malibu you need a wheelbarrow of cash to pay for your meal and a magnifying glass to see it.