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Steak "plus" Houses, Philadelphia, and New York


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I am from NYC and I am a relentless booster for Philadelphia's virtues, I guess that just the instinct to boost raises the question of "he doth protest too much" and reveals my sense that Philadelphia needs some cheerleading sometimes. But mostly I am constantly appraising and re-appraising my life and choices I have made and appreciating the virtues of the city I choose to call home, as well as realizing its shortcomings.

That said, I think food in Philly is a vulnerability compared to NYC (though not necessarily to any lesser city), I know there is endless back-and-forth on this topic and my appreciation and experience is yet less refined than many here who regularly sample the best of NYC.

But I went with my parents to Union Trust and we had a very nice time, much nicer than the first time I went. And this is on top of a very nice experience I had at Table 31 with my wife. And we have enjoyed numerous nice times at Barclay Grill. And after a mediocre first impression at Butcher and Singer I had a lovely if purposeless business dinner there.

And so I propose, and I am not sure if this is original, while Philly appears to have cultivated and perfected the "gastro-pub" I wonder if Philly has now cultivated and perfected a new type of restaurant, the "steak + house." This is a restaurant whose main draw is steak, but offers a full menu in addition.

Steakhouses, pace that Brooklyn temple of beef whose name escapes me, have never been that big a deal in NYC, or at least they weren't when I left in 2000. Smith and Wolensky is one of the first and most profitable chains to proliferate and I take them as the example, lots of meat and everything else really a distraction. But Barclay Grill, Union Trust, and Table 31 actually put a lot of effort into highlighting other parts of their menu, and while they are not exactly pushing the envelope of what is possible on a plate, they may be pushing the envelope of what is possible while doing steaks flawlessly. Discuss.

Edited by brescd01 (log)
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I think you refer to Peter Luger's in Brooklyn. While the better NYC steakhouses do steak to perfection, they also usually offer other non-steak items that I have found to be equally well executed. Most notable is Sparks on E 46th who does fish as well as any top rated seafood restaurant.

When I patronize a top flight NYC steakhouse, or really any place that does steaks really well, I tend not to think about ordering anything else. This may be because my wife is not a big fan so I don't make them often at home.

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Steakhouses, pace that Brooklyn temple of beef whose name escapes me, have never been that big a deal in NYC, or at least they weren't when I left in 2000.

Are you kidding?!

Not only is NYC the premiere American-style steakhouse city in the world, but there has been a veritable explosion of steakhouses in the last 5 years. Just off the top of my head, I can think of:

Ben Benson's

BLT Prime

BLT Steak

Craftsteak

MarkJoseph

The Palm

Peter Luger

Prime Grill

Smith & Wollensky

Sparks

STK

Strip House

Wolfgang's

And this isn't even getting into places like Frankie & Johnnie's, Keen's, Sammy's Roumanian and the like.

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Hence my mention that I left NYC in 2000. That said

1) Sammy's Roumanian is not a steakhouse

2) I did not mean to say there were no good steakhouses in NYC, just that they did not play an important role in the NYC dining scene. And while your list is long, NYC is enormous. Serious foodies just did not and do not, go to Smith and Wollensky except to get a free steak on someone else's dime.

3) I have been to Sparks, it was pretty mediocre even as a steakhouse, that was in 1997, perhaps it has improved.

4) Just to see if I am really disconnected from the NY scene, a place I spent the first 32 years of my life, I checked the NYTimes. If you search for "steakhouse", none gets a particularly good review (including Sparks and Peter Luger), and none better than two stars. And none seems to be recommended as something more than a steakhouse, which was my point, a separate type of joint that presents a fuller menu.

But that's okay, pop my bubble of something Philadelphia is doing better than our rival up north...

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I only listed places in my "main list" that I thought were legitimately steakhouse restaurants. I could have greatly expanded that list. If a place like Table 31 is a "steakhouse plus" (presumably on the basis of offering 6 different steaks on their dinner menu, which is by no means steak-centric). then so would be a place like Landmarc (with 5 steaks on the menu) and countless others. Even sticking to places listed in menupages under "steakhouse" I see Del Frisco's, Demonico's, Fairway Cafe, Landmarc, Les Halles, Michael Jordan's, Post House, Primehouse New York, etc. -- all of which have large, diverse but neverthelese steak-centric menus.

If steakhouses and "steakhouse plus" restaurants (which would describe pretty much all of the ones that have opened here in the last 10 years or so) don't figure highly in the overall NYC dining scene and culture among "serious foodes," I would argue that this is more a reflection of the overall wide selection of high quality restaurants available in NYC. A "steakhouse plus" is not likely to get the same level of attention as, say, Momofuku Ssam bar because there is only so interesting and innovative that a steakhouse can be. This would also be reflected in the reviews these places receive. None of the foregoing, however, obscures the fact that there has been a huge explosion of modern "steakhouse plus" type restaurants in NYC over the last decade or so, nor does it negate the fact that the combination of economics and dining customs means that NYC gets by far the highest proportion of top quality prime aged meat in the country.

Don't get me wrong... I think it's cool if there are a handful of these "steakhouse plus" restaurants in Philadelphia. I simply take exception with the suggestion that this is not a major feature of the NYC culinary landscape. The reason the idea that this is a unique and "better than NYC" trend in Philadelphia is somewhat risible is that, by any reasonable and realistic measure, NYC is the steakhouse capital of the world. So, to the extent that this has become a cool trend in Philadelphia in the last three years or so, it's a trend that was born in NYC and has been underway here for perhaps as many as 10 years.

None of which takes anything away from however cool it may be in Philadelphia. I don't mean to "pop your bubble of something Philadelphia is doing better than our rival up north" so much as I don't understand why this would be a criterion for local pride in the first place. But, if you're going to pick something, steakhouses is probably not the way to go.

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This native Kansas Citian - who still bristles inside when he hears the term "New York strip" - thinks Mr. Kinsey has a point.

I haven't visited any of the New York steakhouses in question and am not likely to when I next head up that way, because (1) the great steakhouses are wildly expensive (2) as a corollary, I think I can get more bang for my dining buck trying one of the hundreds - thousands? - of other interesting restaurants in the city that offer a world of cuisines, including some that may even offer some form of beef on the menu. That said, one thing I think I can say about the new Philadelphia "steak + houses" is that they are probably the most appealing use to which a bunch of shuttered banks have been put in years. (Union Trust's name even alludes to its building's former function -- and the building's interior strongly evokes the main hall of 30th Street Station, which, I understand, was designed by the same architect).

But you're there to eat the food, not the architecture. Nonetheless, the architecture remains awesome, thanks in no small part to those high ceilings and neoclassical or Art Deco touches.

I probably won't dine in any of the Philadelphia places anytime soon either, with the exception of Butcher & Singer (formerly Striped Bass, nee Butcher & Singer - an investment bank) at lunch before the $5.95 burger special goes away.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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Oh, and confidential to brescd01:

No need to apologize for your Philly boosterism.

I've come to appreciate that some "Negadelphians" are hard on their hometown because they love it to death and believe that it could be much better than it is (and in several areas, they're right to be hard on the place in this fashion).

But what it is is already great, and in most cases better than the natives crack it down to be. A little Kansas City-style boosterism can't hurt in that case.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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The problem with providing a long list of anything in NYC is that NYC has a long list of EVERYTHING. Take gastro-pubs, a genre that I doubt anyone could argue, Philadelphia has cultivated and perfected, and certainly a non-entity in NYC. And yet, I am sure, because of NYC's size compared to Philadelphia, were we to count, NYC has more gastro-pubs than Philadelphia. My remark would apply really to anything in NYC (underwear stores, plumbers, etc).

I accept that the steak-plus genre may have developed in cities besides Philadelphia, but I can't help imagining that this is a growing type of resto that will become more important in high-end dining here, not less important, and will be one more distinctive aspect of Philly dining. So far as comparisons, I am not going to NYC anytime soon to gorge myself, so I cannot try many of those places mentioned. But the ones I have tried, Smith and Wollensky, Spark's, and the Knickerbocker (not in your list but listed and recommended in the NYTimes) were pretty average. I also think that grass-fed beef is the next great trend and Philly may have an opening there to leave its rival city behind.

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I haven't visited any of the New York steakhouses in question and am not likely to when I next head up that way, because (1) the great steakhouses are wildly expensive

This is something that's worth exploring, and I think i goes a long way towards explaining why the best "American steakhouse" restaurants are mostly in NYC.

Perhaps more than any other kind of restaurant, with the possible exception of fish restaurants, the quality of a steakhouse depends upon the quality of the ingredients. There is no room for skill or technique to obscure or mitigate differences in quality. If two restaurants are broiling 2 inch thick porterhouse steaks in the same broiler to the same degree of doneness, then the only thing that can differentiate them is the quality of the steak. And there are huge differences.

So, there are a few things going on here. First is that there is only so much "prime of the prime" beef to go around. This drives up prices. Second, the meat has to be dry aged, etc. This drives up prices. But perhaps more important is the fact that there is a certain fixed cost associated with prime of the prime dry aged beef. Unlike many other commodity foodstuffs that may be less expensive in some cities than others, there is no way a prime of the prime dry aged short loin can cost meaningfully less in Philadelphia or Kansas City than it does in New York City or Tokyo. In fact, the cost will be right around the same. So, while something like milk is likely to be less expensive in Philadelphia or Kansas City than it is in Manhattan, this will not be true of prime of the prime dry aged beef.

So what's different? What's different is two things: cost of living and average salary. Things cost more in New York City than they do in Philadelphia and Kansas City, and people living in New York City make a lot more money than they do in Philadelphia and Kansas City. On average, to maintain the same standard of living, a person living in Manhattan needs to earn 78% more than a person living in Philadelphia and more than double what a person living in Kansas City makes. This means that a 40 dollar steak is much less expensive to a NYC resident than it is to a Philly or KC resident. NYCers spend on average around 42% more on food than people in KC and Philadelphia, so that means that the effective cost of the $40 steak to the NY person is around 28 bucks in "KC and Philly dollars." I note, by the way, that the "steak for two" is only 5 dollars more at Peter Luger compared to Union Trust, and it's around 5 dollars less at Wolfgang's. This reflects the fixed-cost nature of the prime ingredient and makes Union Trust a much more expensive restaurant for locals -- especially when one considers the fact that Peter Luger definitely and Wolfgang's most probably are serving a higher quality ingredient.

Needless to say, there are a lot more people living in NYC who are willing to pay 40 dollars for a top of the line steak. And this is the last piece of the equation: Compared to other similarly expensive and high-salaried cities (San Francisco and Los Angeles come to mind), New York has a booze-drinking, cigar-smoking, red-meat-eating kind of culture that most of these other cities do not have. American steakhouses are just not part of California culinary culture the way they are in NYC.

So, you have a situation where 95% of the quality is determined by the raw ingredient. And that raw ingredient is very expensive. And the price of that raw ingredient is still going to be more or less the same wherever you are. And you have one city where cost of living is high, salaries are high and there is a longstanding tradition of meat eating. It's no surprise, then, that most of the best beef goes there, and that there are more places there set up to serve the best beef in this kind of context. And even the NYC places don't all have access to the same quality of beef. There is that little to go around.

The rare exceptions are typically destination places in tourist locations (Bern's in Tampa comes to mind, and there may be perhaps a few places in Las Vegas) likely to be visited by red meat-eating tourists with money in their pockets.

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Very keen and thoughtful analysis, Sam.

A two-pronged query: (1) where do the average spending figures come from, and (2) when you cite figures for New Yorkers, do you mean aggregate averages for residents of all the boroughs, or just Manhattan?

Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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especially when one considers the fact that Peter Luger definitely and Wolfgang's most probably are serving a higher quality ingredient.

Luger serves, and has to my understanding effectively cornered the market on, Gachot and Gachot porterhouses. The only place in Philly (unless things have changed?) where you can get Gachot and Gachot beef is Barclay Prime, and they only have the ribeye, not the porterhouse.

This NYT article from 2003 may be of interest with respect to the argument you're making:

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/21/dining/p...ort-supply.html

Although the article doesn't expressly say it, I believe the scarcity of "prime-prime" porterhouses was the reason Luger's eventually added rib steak to their menu.

EDIT: Wow, 5+ years and I finally made it to 100 posts.

Edited by kretch (log)

"I've been served a parsley mojito. Shit happens." - philadining

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This is really off topic, but your analysis is flawed. I do not refer to your assertion that there is a limited pool of "prime of prime" meat, but of the meaning of cost to diners in various cities. Life in NYC is indeed much more expensive than in Philadelphia. And the average salary is almost certainly higher in NYC than it is in Philadelphia, in part driven by certain industries like the financial industry, which are unique to New York. This is partly balanced by enormous competition in certain industries, like health.

But the rise in salaries in NYC are more than outweighed by the higher costs of living in NYC. New Yorkers on average are housing-poor and have much less disposable income than Philadelphians. So a $40 steak actually is dearer to New Yorkers on average, than to Philadelphians. There are huge cultural differences, for instance New Yorkers eat out much more often (and order in) than Philadelphians, but these reflect personal choice rather than disposable income.

The low cost of living here relative to my salary is one of the reasons I love Philadelphia, and I know how much people in my industry (health) earn in NYC (the statistics are widely available). It does not even come close to compensating for the higher cost of living there, which is mostly due to housing.

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David, the statistics, which as you point out are widely available, show that New Yorkers pay a lot more for housing than people in Philly -- which does account for a large percentage of the difference in cost of living. But the statistics show that they make a lot more money, and more germane to this discussion, also that they spend about 40% more on food (which figure, as you surmise, includes significantly higher-than-average dining out).

Thus: if a NYCer is used to spending $1.40 on food for every $1.00 that a Philadelphia resident spends, then it stands to reason that a $40 steak won't seem as expensive to the NYC resident.

As a point of comparison: A representative "date night" dinner at a middlebrow restaurant in NYC will run around 60 bucks in Manhattan. This is not considered expensive, nor are these restaurants considered "fancy."

So, again... what this adds up to is that there are a lot more people in NYC who are willing to drop 40 dollars on a top-quality steak than most other cities.

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Interesting in that a few months ago you suggested I may have been expecting too high a level of service from a Philadelphia restaurant that charged a mere $18 for breakfast (Parc).

There is a real cost associated with attracting, training and keeping a staff that gives exemplary service. What kind of service should be the expected at a place where you can get eggs benedict, coffee and a glass of orange juice for eighteen bucks? And how should that impact the percent tip?

For example, perhaps the service Holly got would be considered reasonably okay at a place charging twelve dollars for more or less the same items. And clearly it would be considered unacceptable at a place charging twenty-four dollars.

Translated to NYC economy that was a $25.20 breakfast. :wink:

I'm guessing the ingredient costs aren't all that different between New York and Philadelphia. Is it labor cost or rental cost per square foot that impacts pricing more?

Is it true that the 75 cent Grays Papaya dog now costs $1.50. If so, "the city" is getting a little too ritzy for my wallet.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I'm not sure how the quote of mine you pulled is germane to this discussion.

I'm sure it is true that, by and large, commercial food costs are similar between NYC and Philadelphia. I would not expect this to be true between, say, New York City and Kansas City, however.

For most dishes (e.g., a plate of pasta with a $2 food cost), the lower rent and other costs in Philadelphia make it possible for the Philadelphia restaurant to price the same dish at a lower price. And this is reflected in overall lower prices in the Philadelphia area. Steakhouses are a special case, however. Unlike many other kinds of restaurant, steakhouses have the highest food cost and the lowest markup over cost. If the food cost is the same, it is not possible for the steakhouse in Philadelphia to price the steak much lower than the steakhouse in NYC and still make money. Indeed, the prices are right around the same at steakhouses in the two cities. Yet, it seems like a no-brainer that there are a lot more people in NYC willing to spend 100+ bucks on a night out at a steakhouse than there are in Philadelphia. This is because (a) there are a lot more people earning high salaries in NYC; (2) people in NYC spend 40% more on food, and eat more frequently in restaurants; and (iii) people in NYC are used to paying higher prices at restaurants and in the grocery store, so $40 for a steak has a lower "psychological cost." In cities like Kansas City, where there are even fewer people earning high salaries and people spend a much smaller amount of money at restaurants, there is only one way to keep the price down to something that the local public will pay: buy less expensive, lower quality beef.

I think it's a bit silly to put one's head in the sand about the reasons NYC is the steakhouse leader. It's manifestly true, so there must be a reason. Similarly, it would be silly to ignore the extent to which NYC's extensive public transportation system, ubiquity of taxi cabs and low overall car use have contributed to NYC being the leader of the cocktail revival.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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I don't think it is that people want to spend 40% more in NYC just to have bragging rights. Nor do I believe that, in general, NYC restaurant prices are what they are because that is what the market will bear. Just trying to get at why the prices are so much higher. Is it simply rental and/or labor costs, or are the other operating costs more expensive in NYC compared to Philadelphia.

Germane wise, I was just applying the 40% factor to my breakfast at Parc, bringing it to the NYC breakfast price level where one would expect a high level of service. I wanted to raise the point earlier but had no facts to quantify the difference.

Anyone who has dined at Peter Lugers, even the one in Great Neck where I ate on a number of occasions thanks to my then ad agency, can not take exception to the claim that NYC is to steakhouses what Paris is to Michelin three star restaurants.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Oh, I agree that its not necessarily the case that people in NYC want to spend 40% more on food. I think it's a function of (1) higher prices at the grocery store, and (2) significantly more restaurant and delivery eating.

And yea, I'd expect good service for a $25 breakfast. :smile:

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This is something that's worth exploring, and I think i goes a long way towards explaining why the best "American steakhouse" restaurants are mostly in NYC.

So, slkinsey which restaurant(s) are the raining champ for the best Steak at this time would you say?

I've eaten at Sparks, P.L. Brooklyn, Palm I, II & III(III the most recent about 6 months ago), Ben Bensen's. S. & W. and a few others, over the years. The one I liked the least was P.L. Brooklyn, it was about 15 years ago and it was Palm I on a New Years Eve that I enjoyed the most.

Edited by Aloha Steve (log)

edited for grammar & spelling. I do it 95% of my posts so I'll state it here. :)

"I have never developed indigestion from eating my words."-- Winston Churchill

Talk doesn't cook rice. ~ Chinese Proverb

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I haven't visited any of the New York steakhouses in question and am not likely to when I next head up that way, because (1) the great steakhouses are wildly expensive

This is something that's worth exploring, and I think i goes a long way towards explaining why the best "American steakhouse" restaurants are mostly in NYC.

Perhaps more than any other kind of restaurant, with the possible exception of fish restaurants, the quality of a steakhouse depends upon the quality of the ingredients. There is no room for skill or technique to obscure or mitigate differences in quality. If two restaurants are broiling 2 inch thick porterhouse steaks in the same broiler to the same degree of doneness, then the only thing that can differentiate them is the quality of the steak. And there are huge differences.

So, there are a few things going on here. First is that there is only so much "prime of the prime" beef to go around. This drives up prices. Second, the meat has to be dry aged, etc. This drives up prices. But perhaps more important is the fact that there is a certain fixed cost associated with prime of the prime dry aged beef. Unlike many other commodity foodstuffs that may be less expensive in some cities than others, there is no way a prime of the prime dry aged short loin can cost meaningfully less in Philadelphia or Kansas City than it does in New York City or Tokyo. In fact, the cost will be right around the same. So, while something like milk is likely to be less expensive in Philadelphia or Kansas City than it is in Manhattan, this will not be true of prime of the prime dry aged beef.[...]

Needless to say, there are a lot more people living in NYC who are willing to pay 40 dollars for a top of the line steak. And this is the last piece of the equation: Compared to other similarly expensive and high-salaried cities (San Francisco and Los Angeles come to mind), New York has a booze-drinking, cigar-smoking, red-meat-eating kind of culture that most of these other cities do not have. American steakhouses are just not part of California culinary culture the way they are in NYC.[...]

I'm sure it is true that, by and large, commercial food costs are similar between NYC and Philadelphia.  I would not expect this to be true between, say, New York City and Kansas City, however.

[...]  In cities like Kansas City, where there are even fewer people earning high salaries and people spend a much smaller amount of money at restaurants, there is only one way to keep the price down to something that the local public will pay:  buy less expensive, lower quality beef.

Thanks to that much lower cost of living, a "high salary" in Kansas City doesn't have to be as high as a high salary in Manhattan (or any of the other four boroughs, for that matter, but as far as the people you're likely to find in NYC steakhouses are concerned, they're most likely from that one borough -- and also IMO more likely to be from certain parts of Westchester, Nassau, Suffolk, or Bergen counties than they are Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx or Staten Island).

And that leads to something you're dead on target about, something that even other Kansas Citians I know who've eaten at steakhouses in both cities have remarked on.

Logic might suggest that, given the city's history, Kansas City would also have a strong steakhouse tradition, given that we cut up the cows and put their parts on reefer boxcars headed East. (Which is why the cut everybody calls "New York" on the East Coast is called "Kansas City" out that way, as in these reviews.) And it does, to be fair (again, see the reviews). But none* of the city's best known steakhouses serve steaks anywhere near the caliber of those at NYC's best.

You can have a perfectly decent steak at the Golden Ox, the Hereford House, Jess and Jim's, the Plaza III, the Savoy Grill, or the Majestic (all of these are local to KC, and all but the last of these were in business when I grew up there). You will probably pay $25 to $35 for it.* And it won't be quite up to the level of those served in the NYC places above, for the reasons Sam stated: There's only so much top-notch beef to go around, and New Yorkers are willing to shell out serious money for it, whereas Kansas Citians aren't used to shelling out that kind of money for a meal out except on very special occasions, the kind that would have them making reservations at The American Restaurant in Crown Center.

*Looking at the info on that "10 Best Steakhouses" list linked above, however, there are enough Kansas Citians who are willing to do this to keep one steakhouse that charges NYC prices in business: the Plaza III's listing indicates that the average main course there runs $50, while the other steakhouses on the list range from $25 to $37. For purposes of comparison, a main at the American Restaurant will set you back $70 on average. Remind me to save up for a Plaza III meal on my next trip to Kansas City and I'll give you a full comparative report.

New Yorkers on average are housing-poor and have much less disposable income than Philadelphians. [...]There are [also] huge cultural differences, for instance New Yorkers eat out much more often (and order in) than Philadelphians, but these reflect personal choice rather than disposable income.

I wonder if "choice" is indeed the right word for it. Have you seen the size of some NYC apartment kitchens? There are lots that are barely big enough to turn around in. Even people who love to cook would be hard pressed to indulge their passions in one of these.

And along with those stratospheric salaries also come insane work hours, in many instances. That also tends to discourage dining in.

I'm sure it is true that, by and large, commercial food costs are similar between NYC and Philadelphia.  I would not expect this to be true between, say, New York City and Kansas City, however.

[...]  In cities like Kansas City, where there are even fewer people earning high salaries and people spend a much smaller amount of money at restaurants, there is only one way to keep the price down to something that the local public will pay:  buy less expensive, lower quality beef.

See my comments above for evidence of exceptions to that general rule. However, the fact that the city's culinary reputation today rests mainly on barbecue, which is a cooking method designed for less expensive cuts of meat, also backs up your point.

Similarly, it would be silly to ignore the extent to which NYC's extensive public transportation system, ubiquity of taxi cabs and low overall car use have contributed to NYC being the leader of the cocktail revival.

Getting back to our New York-Philadelphia comparison, of course, as there are parts of Philadelphia that share these characteristics and thus are hospitable to people who don't (have to) drive any(every)where, this city too has seen a nascent cocktail culture emerge -- but it's largely drowned out by the huge wave of craft beer that washes through the streets of Philadelphia.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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