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Dining out – the rule of diminishing returns


PSmith
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I find the comments of disappointment in $30 plates highly amusing. These days, I find myself filled with regret over $10.

A combination of inclement market conditions, low consumer expectations, and bare-fisted greed has created a truly appalling standard for anything but the most luxuriant food. A 1/2-lb grass fed beef burger small fries at a burger joint off frat row is a whopping $16.50, and is par with $5 equivalent at Five Guys. Hummus comes from a tub. God forbid you order pasta priced below a round-trip megabus to Chicago. Maybe my standards have become inflated over time, but the prices keep creeping upwards while the quality, at best, remains stagnant.

I actually make a point of eating out at sub-$6 establishments when possible on the basis that they aren't charging enough to afford Sysco. My lunch might be 80% masa harina, but at least it's the genuine article.

My one major exception is high-quality steak. A local place does a very nice Neiman Ranch grass-fed flatiron for $18, and while the mark-up is no doubt gonzo, the fact is I'd be spending at least $9 to obtain an equivalent cut at retail. Also, should my rare beef luxuriance be overcooked, they're obliged to give me a new one. (I'd be more steamed about receiving a medium-well steak when I'd ordered rare if I hadn't done the same dang thing last week.)

And it's only $3.50 more than the burgers down the street.

Edited by jrshaul (log)
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Simon_S and Shalmanese hit the nail on the head for me. We also typically eat at local, relatively inexpensive restaurants (entrees no more than $15) and save up for one or two blow out meals a year. For me, the value is at the extreme ends of the bell curve -- and lost in the wasteland of restaurants selling entrees for $25-50 that we can cook at home.

In response to Pam and PSmith -- I do enjoy and appreciate the occasional blow out/no expense sparred dinner. Our last such meal was a full ten course (not including 6 amuse) tasting menu at Meadowood in Napa Valley, a three star Michelin restaurant. With wine pairings and tip our meal for two was almost $1000. Objectively speaking, that's no doubt an exorbitant price to pay for dinner. But it wasn't just dinner, it was an experience and yes the food was that memorable -- it's been almost a year since that dinner and I still vividly remember each course.

If I'm being completely honest, part of our enjoyment of this kind of dining, is that my wife and I are accomplished enough as home cooks to appreciate how difficult it was to make the dishes we ate. Some, like a perfectly clear carrot consomme or a black licorice enrobed fois gras torchon, simply boggled my mind as to how it was created. Almost every dish had numerous components that clearly required a ton of work. Beyond the advanced cooking techniques on display, there were numerous exotic ingredients and difficult to source wine pairings. This was not a dining experience that I could recreate at home, nor could I have had a similar tasting menu for much less at another restaurant. Was it a bargain -- not really, but I felt I was getting value for the price of admission.

I'm from the Southeast United States and appreciate well executed, simple food -- a perfect pulled pork sandwhich, a bowl of pozole or pho, a plate of shrimp and grits -- but appreciating perfect soul-satisfying dishes that sell for under $10 isn't mutually exclusive with appreciating a blow out tasting menu at Alinea, the French Laundry, Meadowood or the like. There seems to be a bit of a reverse-snob trend in the US where it's cool to put down high end dining in favor of the latest and greatest ethnic hole-in-the wall or food truck, but I think it's every bit as misguided as the old fashioned food-snobbery was to begin with.

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I actually find that there's a canyon of enjoyment in the mid-range of dining out. The times I do go out to eat, I love cheap, ethnic eats under $15 and I appreciate the artistry of a $200 tasting menu but every time I eat at a place that's $25 - $45, I inevitably look down at my plate and think "I'm paying $30 for this I can make this better at home from $5 worth of ingredients!". Just tonight, I was grabbing drinks with a friend at a hip new place that just opened up and she ordered a $22 ricotta ravioli that came with FIVE ravioli and some wild mushrooms and arugula.

I'd much rather forgo 6 $30 meals for one $180 meal.

I feel this way too. DBF and I went for brunch to a new gastropub in a posh shopping district. $60 and it was not terrible, but nothing to write home about. (When did chicken and waffles becomes the thing to have on a breakfast menu?) The worst was the $8 potato pancake appetizer, that sounded good good on the menu, but came with 3 little pancakes the size of silver dollars, with a smear of cream and a smidgeon of relish. We both agreed that we should have stayed home and made breakfast burritoes.

There are lots of mid priced restaurants around my office, but it pains me to spend those prices on such questionable quality.

But there are some places we go where dinner for 2 costs $150-400 that are very worth the money. And I'm happy to trade 4 $60 "gastropub" experiences for one of those meals. And we've got lots of burger/taco/BBQ/pizza slice places in the $6-12pp range that blow those mid-priced places out of the water, too. I can actually only think of 2-3 places in that middle price range I feel good about eating at from a value/can't make this at home/ambience perspective, and some of that may be the deep beer/whiskey menus. So yeah, "canyon of enjoyment" is a great way to put it.

"Nothing you could cook will ever be as good as the $2.99 all-you-can-eat pizza buffet." - my EX (wonder why he's an ex?)

My eGfoodblog: My corner of the Midwest

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We have had a few, very few, top end Michelin star experiences that have been worth the money, where you would say next time it is a special occasion, we will go back. Our most expensive to date being The Fat Duck which was around £500, it was a theatrical experience and the food was like the curates egg - good in parts but not worth going back. We have a few £100+ restaurants we patronise on a regular basis but find it frustrating because they don’t change their menus often enough. When eating out once every week or two there is not enough choice in our area and travelling any distance in this country with high diesel and accommodation prices it makes for an expensive experience particularly so if the food does not come up to expectations. As for the bottom end of the eating out market if we want chicken and chips or pizzas I make it myself. We do have a very good fish & chip shop locally which we visit quite often. Otherwise it is 'eat in' at home.

Pam Brunning Editor Food & Wine, the Journal of the European & African Region of the International Wine & Food Society

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Mostly, we eat out when we travel, because in Denmark a lot of money will usually net you something between 'very nice' and 'Well, that was disappointing'. And by 'disappointing' I don't mean that expectations of novelty or entertainment were not met, but that the food wasn't particularly well-prepared. Spending a lot of money on food doesn't strike me as implicitly immoral, but spending a lot on something that I know I could do better myself is not the sort of thing that puts me in a good mood.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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I've been following and pondering. It seems to me that it is not the high end that is over-priced, but the low-end restaurants. To use a US example, I can have a mediocre dinner for two with drinks and vile wine at Ruby Tuesday (a low-end chain with some pretentions) for about $90. Dinner at an average top line place in Philadelphia would be $200 to 250ish (assuming that we didn't go nuts on wines).

The $90 spent on Ruby T would be just a waste. Crappy food, served by a knucklehead, no memories of the meal...why am I eating here? The $250 meal would be just the opposite and way more than 3-4 times better.

So why are so many patrons pouring money into crummy restaurants?

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The $90 spent on Ruby T would be just a waste. Crappy food, served by a knucklehead, no memories of the meal...why am I eating here? The $250 meal would be just the opposite and way more than 3-4 times better.

So why are so many patrons pouring money into crummy restaurants?

Bugger all if I know. Most restaurants in my area under $25 an entree serve a culinary Chrysler Sebring - adequate, safe, and disappointing in every conceivable way.

I suspect that a large percentage of diners treat restaurants as conveniences, whether due to travel, lack of time, or simply needing a venue for group activity. The actual food is only significant as a part of the ambiance. Sort of like the carpet.

I'm considering picketing outside Coldstone with a sign proclaiming "BETTER LOCAL ICE CREAM ACROSS THE STREET."

Edited by jrshaul (log)
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However, not every meal out needs to be a gourmet extravaganza. Sometimes you don't have the time or the money.

Also I feel that there is an element of "piss taking" from some of the celebrity chefs in the UK who have over inflated egos and seem to be wrapped up in their art, that they don't feel the need to offer value for money.

Read these reviews. £250 a head. :blink:

http://www.squaremeal.co.uk/review/A_Taste_of_Noma_at_Claridge%27s/309340

And also this one on Trip Advisor

"Hotel was fantastic and the Foyer was fantastic. Dinner was at NOMA!!!

If I’m not mistaken “"The Emperor's New Clothes" (Danish: Kejserens nye Klæder) is a short tale by Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, a child cries out, "But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

So my evening tonight has a brought the tale up to date with Danish cook who promises his dinner guests a new gastronomic experience that would be lost to those unfit for their positions or stupid or incontinent. Alas this is a fairytale and thus was the myth of NOMA shattered. My dinner partner and I came to the same conclusion as the child in the crowd. It’s a con and it doesn’t taste of anything at all.

• Vegetables, Soil and Grass = yes that’s exactly what it was like

• Ants = some gem lettuce with crème fresh, a few dead and a few live ants. “some sort of Danish joke I presume”

• Crushed Raspberries and tea, scones and caviar = odd Umami experiment – not unpleasant

• Oysters and samphire buttermilk and “sol” = like a very milky oyster

• Tartar and sorrel, juniper and tarragon = a scraping of Carpaccio with rocket – okay

• Celeriac and truffle = like a tasteless boiled spud served with tasteless mud

• Lamb neck and fermented pea and fresh cheese = my Mum does a better Sunday roast lamb and I gagged on the cheese element

• Walnut and dried berries = sawdust on top of a bit of ice cream

• Potato crisps = a chocolate covered Pringle with caraway seeds on top – as it sounds disgusting

• Accompanying wine list = unfeasibly bad – we convinced Claridge’s to offer something decent for tomorrow night albeit at double the price – avoid and choose your own!

Thank you to the impeccable staff at Claridge’s. You deserve Olympic medals for the next nine days of abuse you are about to have to deal with from Children in the audience. Of course there will always be a few that think because they have paid a grand for dinner for four it will be superb no matter what is served up!"

Emperor's New Clothes indeed!

http://www.thecriticalcouple.co.uk

Latest blog post - Oh my - someone needs a spell checker

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