When the annual list of the world’s 50 best restaurants was published earlier this month, one establishment stood out: Eleven Madison Park, which jumped an unrivaled 26 places on the global list, to number 24. Its ranking isn’t the only thing rising, however. Only last year its standard lunch menu was a steal at $28; these days you’ll pay $56 at least.
In a city where nobody cooks, rising prices at New York restaurants have become a fact of life. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, awarded three Michelin stars, once charged $135 for a nine-course vegetarian tasting menu; the same meal will now set you back $295 (although service is now included). But food inflation isn’t just being felt at the top end: a slice of pizza in Brooklyn can now cost you $5 – and yes, that’s one slice we’re talking about.
“Price hikes are the story of the recovery,” says Ryan Sutton, food critic for Bloomberg in New York, who tracks the cost of dining out on a dedicated blog, thepricehike.com. After two years of restaurant closures across the crisis-shocked city, those still standing are making up for lost time, as discreetly as possible. “I’m trying to inject transparency into an opaque market,” says Sutton. “A restaurant is not going to issue a press release when it raises its prices.”
Much of the surge, Sutton insists, is linked to both rising global food prices and higher costs of production at the serious-minded local farms that New York’s better chefs rely on. “There is no Moore’s law for food,” he says.
Consider Momofuku noodle bar, the epicentre of informal fine dining in the East Village, using produce so hallowed the farmers’ names appear on the menu. The ramen costs a hefty $16, but David Chang, the restaurant’s owner and chef, recently said that he would need to charge $21 in order to turn a profit.
For restaurants that held back from raising prices during the recession – despite rising commodity costs – increases now seem at best haphazard and at worst opportunistic. What’s more, if high prices are no sign of quality, raising them does little to clarify things.
A prime example is The Lion, a restaurant on Ninth Street that packs in the financial services crowd and its hangers-on despite a near-unanimous critical drubbing. At The Lion, if you can stand the din, your côte de boeuf will cost $120, up from $98 less than a year ago. “In terms of food costs, that increase isn’t totally unjustified,” Sutton says. “It’s their cooking that’s unjustified.”