subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

What to expect when you pay hundreds of dollars for dinner—and why you do it



How much money is too much money for a multi-course dinner at one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s top restaurants?

That’s what the San Francisco Chronicle’s longtime restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, asked this past Sunday in this article, in which he takes to task Bay Area restaurants that raise their prices to astronomical levels but all too often fail to deliver for the money.

What kinds of prices are we talking about? $398 at Saison…$310 at French Laundry…$298 at Atelier Crenn…$220 at Quince…$500 at Meadowood…throw in some good wine and the amount soars even higher. I mean, not that long ago those prices would feed four people, not just one.

In the article, Bauer traces the evolution of this price inflation and blames it on the confluence of three things: “food-obsessed tourists” coming to the region, who are already psychologically primed to spend a lot of money on a meal; “the sophistication of the Bay Area dining public,” which includes me and, I assume, those of you lucky enough to live here; and—bottom line–“enough disposable income to indulge.” The latter apparently is no problem here in San Francisco, which sometimes seem like it’s swimming in money the way Uncle Scrooge used to in the comics.


How much you choose to spend for dinner is up to you, of course. But I agree with Michael Bauer when he says, “[N]o matter the price tag, there has to be a sense of value. High prices are not a given; they have to be earned.” I’m sure you agree, too; the problem is that these places would not be able to get away with these exorbitant prices if people weren’t prepared to pay them. I’ve had my share of these dinners (Saison, French Laundry, Meadowood and others, including beyond the Bay Area), and was fortunate in that somebody else was usually picking up the tab. But everytime I have one of these meals, I think, “For this price, I could eat at any of my favorite restaurants in Oakland ten times.” This is true, I’m sure, for everybody else, so why do people continue to queue up for seats at these palaces of gastronomy?

For the same reason they line up for the most expensive wines. There are psychological phenomena at work, ranging from not wanting to miss out on something special, to bragging rights and an authentic curiosity about what food at that price tastes like, how it’s served, and the ambience in the restaurant. We foodistas are understandably passionate about great meals. It goes with the territory if you’re a wino. Still, the psychological part fascinates me. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist who’s parachuted into the Bay Area to observe the social habits, including dining, of the natives. Like Margaret Mead when she observed Samoan culture in the 1920s, I want to understand the behaviors of a very particular group: well-educated, primarily white, middle-aged gourmands who are able to afford to eat in the top restaurants of Napa Valley, San Francisco and the Bay Area in general.

This group radiates confidence and refined sensibilities, but at heart they also suffer from a sense of insecurity. Although they possess many things in the form of material comforts, they feel like something is missing from their lives. What it is, cannot be accurately defined; if it could, they would possess that, too. Perhaps the thing they feel is missing cannot be possessed, but one never knows until one has tried. And so the search goes on, for a greater wine, a greater vacation destination, a greater restaurant experience. As Buddhism points out, “desire” is the attempt to fill a spiritual hole that cannot be filled; the pursuit of things to fulfill desire will always be fruitless; the rarest commodity in the world will not really fulfill desire because change—irresistible, inevitable—soon will have us feeling dissatisfied again. And so back at it we go, seeking an ever greater food, wine, exotic locale.

Well, I don’t mean to be the snake at the garden party. I like good food and wine as much as you do. And I don’t care what somebody spends at Quince, or what they don’t spend; it’s no skin off my nose. I do hope that people who drop these big bucks at restaurants are also using their money in more charitable ways, to help others; and I think there’s something to be said about frugality as an attitude towards life. We don’t see much frugality in the Bay Area; we see a lot of its opposite, profligacy. That means “the careless and foolish wasting of money.” Again, of course, it’s not my place to tell you or anybody else what to do with your money. I can only speak for myself.

  1. James Rego says:

    I agree with your comments as well as those of Bauer. I dine out in Napa and the greater San Francisco Bay area frequently, and what I’m interested in are quality and value; good food for a decent price. I have dined in some of the restaurants mentioned and I always leave with the feeling that I got ripped off! I recall a Michelin starred restaurant in Healdsburg (no longer there) where I ordered a side of Asparagus that came as a single spear on a rather large plate.
    The problem is that there is plenty of money in this society and plenty of patrons willing to pay these ridiculous prices- have you tried getting a ticket to a sporting event lately?

  2. Bob Henry says:

    From New York Eater (posted February 1, 2016):

    “Masa Will End Tipping; Dinner for Two Will Cost More Than a MacBook”


    Masa, the priciest restaurant in America, is about to get a bit more expensive . . . lunch or dinner for two, after tax, will cost no less than $1,300. Add on drinks and a date will run more than a MacBook with Retina display.

  3. Before I moved to Rockridge in the late 2000’s, I was a City guy along with my brother. We lived in the Outer Richmond. When I drive through the City these days and go through my old neighborhood, I still stop out at Clement and 10th for $4 of dim sum. That’s 6 pieces! It’s still the same price it was 15 years ago and it’s still delicious. We ate a lot of dim sum as residents. I love the stuff. Shout out to Henry’s Hunan on Sacramento in those days.

    When we moved to Rockridge, another world opened up to us. A Cote is still blasting out great dishes and I think, one of the best wine lists in the Bay Area. There are plenty of other examples off Piedmont Ave and Grand Ave of great eats. I just had another solid burger at Woodside Tavern (my Dad had pastrami sandwich which was outstanding) , but could have easily had one next door at Barney’s or some pizza at Zachary’s.

    A good friend was in SF and asked that I find a restaurant that was “new but classic and a solid wine list but not somewhere we’ve been before and we can share multiple courses”. My first thought was to look at the tasting menus listed in the Bauer article. I was shell shocked. I wasn’t going to drop a grand on dinner. Just not going to happen; and I’m a sick foodie.

    I even watched the Netflix documentary on Atelier Crenn, just to look for inspiration. I like her story, even ran into her on the street that very night outside the restaurant. Crenn has every credential a chef could want.

    Which of course got me on a tangent of if you’re going to go to a restaurant that probably uses some form of molecular gastronomy (aka chemistry) our sous vide (vacuum sealing and cooking in a plastic bag) and pay $300/head, are you the same high minded diner/foodie that questions winemakers if they add tartaric acid, finishing tannin or bentonite to their 98 point, $200 wine? The restaurant doesn’t list all their ingredients or process. And what does “natural” wine really mean? Nothing. But I digress.

    I chose Octavia, Melissa Perello’s restaurant. Totally met expectations. Had a great experience. Expensive, maybe, but in a way that isn’t obscene. Well portioned dishes, with the owner/chef standing at the pass, attentive service and a full, energy filled dining room. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.

    As a side note, expense accounts, if you’re in a profession that has a generous one (think finance, legal, technology), all of the restaurants in the Bauer article are within reach. Every single one. Where do you bring top clients who are visiting from Chicago? Quince. Because when you visit Chicago, you have steak at Gibsons or Tavern and the firm you work for is picking up the bill.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Years ago, I dined with wine friends at Masayoshi “Masa” Takayama’s Ginza Sushiko restaurant in Beverly Hills.

    The highlight was fresh uni (sea urchin) from Santa Barbara bay.

    The best meal I have ever had in my life.

    Comfortably exceeded the $500 diner at The French Laundry (showcasing its “top 10 dishes”) on New Years Eve’s, before they closed for half-a-year to open Per Se.

    The most expensive meal at the time in Los Angeles ($125 to $150 a person) is now the most expensive meal in New York.

    Backgrounder from Wikipedia entry:

    “Ginza Sushiko, sometimes spelled Ginza Sushi-ko, opened in 1987 in the corner of a mini-mall of an unglamorous section of Wilshire Boulevard; it was not far from Saba-ya. Originally aimed at Japanese diners, it did not advertise and had an unlisted telephone number. However, it quietly gained a reputation as the most expensive restaurant in Los Angeles, and a place for food purists. Instead of a menu, diners were served omakase and meals lasted two to three hours. Takayama would keep a careful record of each customer, the date he or she dined at the restaurant, how many were in the party, what they drank and what they ate so that he could offer them something new on their next visit. He would have most of his fish flown in from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

    “In 1990, the average bill without alcohol, depending on the amount eaten by a customer and the fluctuating price of fish, ranged from $125 to $150 per person.

    “. . . After eight years at its original location, it moved in 1992 to more fashionable and upscale Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The 12-seat restaurant cemented its status as L.A.’s most expensive and exclusive sushi restaurant. A decade later, Takayama decided to try a change of surroundings and sold Ginza Sushiko to his sous-chef, who changed the name to Urasawa.

    “In 2004, Takayama opened his own eponymous restaurant in New York City.”


Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts