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Talking about restaurant prices


Fat Guy
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Anybody who has picked up a Zagat survey, looked at the cost-of-meal estimate for a given restaurant and then dined at that restaurant knows that the prices listed in Zagat bear little resemblance to the price actually paid for a meal. But the accuracy problem in restaurant-price descriptions extends far beyond Zagat. I don't think I've ever seen a satisfactory shorthand expression of the cost of a meal.

Sure, you can just publish the menu, the wine list, the cocktail list, etc., and that will give a good indication of price. But once you start summarizing, things get complicated. (Things are even complicated if you've seen all the menus, but let's get to that later.) You can give appetizer, entree and dessert price ranges but at plenty of restaurants the entree price range is $16-$39. That's not terribly helpful. You can give averages but averages can be thrown off by outliers like caviar. Prix-fixe menus seem simple but many have supplements, and depending on the restaurant those supplements may be more or less compelling.

One thing I'd love to know about every restaurant I visit is the actual cover average broken down by food and beverage. That to me says a lot. Two restaurants with seemingly similar prices on paper -- even if you've read the whole menu and all the accompanying documents -- can vary greatly in terms of how customers actually spend money (and how servers sell the experience). One restaurant might be taking in an average of $70 per cover on food and $25 on beverages. Another might be taking in $90 and $90. That tells me that in order to get the restaurant's intended experience people are spending in a certain range -- otherwise they're not eating within the restaurant's intended parameters. Sometimes you can break out of those parameters without incident, other times you can't.

How do you prefer to hear about restaurant prices? Do you find that you're able to anticipate the cost of a meal with some degree of accuracy, or are you often surprised at how much you've spent? Is there a best shorthand way to say how much it costs to eat at a place?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It doesn't seem to fair to penalize restaurants that have such an enticing menu that you choose to order multiple appetizers, additions to your prix-fixe, etc.

I feel one can deduce a fair average price based on the menu alone.

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I find that those averages are no help at all. I like to look at a menu and check out things I'm likely to eat.

Even more important, I would like to see a wine list with prices; failing that, a detailed characterization by someone who sounds like they know what they are talking about. That is usually a much bigger variable than things like appetizers.

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Also me - those averages mean nothing. I always call a new (to me) restaurant and ask them to fax me a copy of the menu - not just for the prices, but to see what they're serving. And in many cases, I'll ask for the wine list as well.

I've actually never really found a restaurant that minded doing this.

(And though this came up on another thread, one of the reasons I do this is because I don't like schlepping an additional pair of reading glasses to the restaurant, so if I've studied the menu and wine list in advance, I can get away with just my regular glasses.)

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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You know, I might find averages more helpful if I went to more restaurants where the dining experience does not revolve around entrees, one per person-- or a tasting menu with a set price and limited add-ons. The only thing is, when I do go to places with small plates or whatever, I find the bill can vary so much that an "average" would have to be given as part of a fairly detailed review for me to be able to see whether or not it might apply to me. I don't usually find that if I go with say three other people to a tapas or small plates restaurant-- or a restaurant that serves family-style, for that matter-- we are guided through the menu in such a way that the bill is likely to come out to a certain amount. It depends on how hungry we are and a lot of other things. Certainly the sizes of plates can be a surprise, but I find that in the same restaurant they will surprise you both with how large they are *and* with how small they are. So, yeah, give me an average but with some description of how you arrived at that average.

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i've used menupages.com whenever possible, but after recently moving to detroit where it doesn't exist, i won't be able to. i have, in the past, called a restaurant to see how much they charge for entrees, and then followed up with steaks and pastas... that has given me a good enough idea of how the menu would be priced

Sandy Levine
The Oakland Art Novelty Company

sandy@TheOaklandFerndale.com www.TheOaklandFerndale.com

www.facebook.com/ArtNoveltyCompany twitter: @theoakland

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I make a point of putting my prices on my menus when advertising. Alot of people check out the restaurant's web site before visiting.

When ever a publication inquires on prices I'll refer to our avererage per customer. Some will ask for a price on a 3 course dinner including one drink.

Bottom line is, restaurant's web site should have current pricing on their online menus.

P.S. Fatguy, is that a thick or thin crust pie?

Edited by Saltydog (log)

www.saltyskitchen.com

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Have you tried http://www.allmenus.com/ ? We recently moved here too and I find their menu listings great for deciding whether the food and prices are worth a visit.

i've used menupages.com whenever possible, but after recently moving to detroit where it doesn't exist, i won't be able to.  i have, in the past, called a restaurant to see how much they charge for entrees, and then followed up with steaks and pastas... that has given me a good enough idea of how the menu would be priced

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All of this talk about looking at the menu seems to miss the point -- it would be great if there were some way to construct a representative cost number for a given restaurant. Yes, I agree that a simple average or entree price range does not cut it: that does not automatically imply that a meaningful number cannot, at least in theory, be developed. Th trouble seems to me to be that every eater is different, so a number that may be representative of the way I eat may not be useful to fatguy, etc. I agree that some sort of "average bill" is more useful that a straight average, but I would bet that an average "eGullet" bill does not correspond to an average non-foodie bill. Maybe not always higher, but I bet they aren't the same.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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most restaurants use micros or similar pos systems, which give endless statistics. not all restaurants use them, but many do. if you asked for a manager, they would often be able to give you the restaurant's per person overall check average (which as was noted upthead isn't necessarily that helpful). Usually, though, a little further down in those statistics are food per person average, liquor ppa, and wine ppa. if those stats aren't readily available they can be very easily computed by simply dividing the sales for that department by the number of guests served. if you ask a manager for this info be sure to have them only look at numbers in the dining room since the overall numbers may include bar sales which skew averages since most don't eat there. it's a little more work but if you don't call during service (2-5pm or 8-11am) any manager worth their weight in salt will be happy to quickly look it up for you. i suppose some might not be too forthcoming if they think you are a competitor though.

Sandy Levine
The Oakland Art Novelty Company

sandy@TheOaklandFerndale.com www.TheOaklandFerndale.com

www.facebook.com/ArtNoveltyCompany twitter: @theoakland

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I'd have to say that you just need to know yourself. I typically order a cocktail first, sometimes an appetizer, and then what ever I'm drinking with my food after I've selected an entree. I almost never order desert. If I am accompanied to dinner, we might order a bottle of wine and then select entrees accordingly as well.

The question is, do I get the $15 chicken dish or the $30 Filet? I tend to get the filet. I can eat chicken at home. (I eat filet at home to.)

How do you anticipate what a given restaurant will cost beforehand? Read the menu, know what you would most likely select and then do some math. Or, go to staples and get an easy button.

The bottom line is to know yourself.

Edit* Grammer FTW

Edited by RAHiggins1 (log)
Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.
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The question is, do I get the $15 chicken dish or the $30 Filet? I tend to get the filet. I can eat chicken at home. (I eat filet at home to.)

I agree, this is pretty much my approach to eating out. I've been treated and the host will look at me funny when I order pasta and they are suggesting steak or lobster or both. They don't understand the chances of me getting all these ingredients and having the four hours it might take to make this sauce isn't going to happen often at home.

"And in the meantime, listen to your appetite and play with your food."

Alton Brown, Good Eats

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Fat Guy, you've forced me to examine my own misguided approach to judging price.

Thinking back, I tend to judge the cost of a restaurant based exclusively on entree price. Until this thread, that seemed like a fine approach. Now I'm wondering if restaurants expect this and tweak the margins of the meal (appetizers, drinks, desserts) to boost the cost. I'd have to think, though, that most people pay close attention to when entree prices hover below $10 or average above $30. There is something magical about multiples of ten.

Having worked for a number of local and national publications, I've seen many approaches to this problem. Without naming names, here's what I've seen:

1) Ask restaurant for the average entree price, and then assign the place into a broad category (i.e. $, $$ or $$)

2) Determine the second highest entree price, and then assign restaurant to category.

3) Attempt to calculate an average three-course meal without drinks and then assign to a broad category.

I'm not sure any of these approaches produces completely satisfying results. The real problem is deciding where to draw the line on each price category.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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What if instead of using the "average" (which is skewed by outliers), you used the price of the most popular entree? Dunno how you would get the "most popular" but it seems like some asking around would get that more readily than expecting a manager to give you the full breakdown of the statistics. Of course, this doesn't help with restaurants where the bulk of the price is not in the entree, or where you may not get it (for me, this is anyplace with a tasting menu - I nearly always get that instead... and the upcharges on those can be unpredictable).

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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What if instead of using the "average" (which is skewed by outliers), you used the price of the most popular entree? Dunno how you would get the "most popular" but it seems like some asking around would get that more readily than expecting a manager to give you the full breakdown of the statistics. Of course, this doesn't help with restaurants where the bulk of the price is not in the entree, or where you may not get it (for me, this is anyplace with a tasting menu - I nearly always get that instead... and the upcharges on those can be unpredictable).

I suppose you could ask what dish they are known for.

Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.
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