I don't think it's that restaurants are getting more expensive. In fact, it probably has more to do with the economy than any change in pricing. Like most people, I am far more cautious with my money than I was a few years back. Without going into too much detail, the recession has had a very real effect on my family's finances, and luxury items are out, for the most part.
Of course, when I eat for work I am usually not spending my own money. I have a budget to stick to, and my dining is in no way unlimited, but I'm not under the same constraints as my readers. But when I've eaten out over the last few months, more and more I'm asking myself, "Would I spend my own money on this?" And more and more, the answer is no.
Four times in the past month, I've spent around $180 on meals that I enjoyed but were in no way exceptional.
I know full well that restaurants operate on a razor thin margin, and that no one (or very few people) are getting wealthy in this industry. I also know that the quality ingredients the public demand these days are expensive. I'm not bitching and moaning because I think food should be cheap, or I think we're being ripped off. If anything, I'm concerned for the industry itself. So few people can afford to eat this way anymore. If I were a restaurateur, I'd be scrambling to find ways to provide value above all else. Because $180 for decent but not mind blowing meals isn't going to float for most folks.
In all honesty, if I were eating completely on my own dime, I'd frequent cheap ethnic restaurants, and splurge occasionally by sitting at a bar and grabbing an appetizer and a cocktail, after which I'd go home and fill up on brown rice and yogurt. I'd save my $180 meals for special occasions. Those special occasion meals would be had at places where I know I'd be wowed.
As a critic, this presents a bit of a problem. I write for people in all economic groups. I take price into consideration when writing about a place - if it's pricey to me I try to get that into the review. If I find a place egregiously expensive, that can help determine the star rating (the two examples I can think of in particular are BLT Steak and MF Buckhead, both of which just seemed stupidly expensive). There have been examples that go the other way as well - some places offer such amazing value they end up with a better rating than they would if pricing was more the norm.
But for middle of the road restaurants that offer much what everyone else does at comparable cost, what to do? When very very little in town seems to be offering a meal I'd want to eat if I were given the choice between it and a great new pair of shoes, or a plane ticket to Miami, or three week's worth of after school care for my kid, how do I communicate that?
My feeling is that everyone's holding their breath waiting for the recession to end, for the boom times to return, and for customers to start throwing money at eateries again. But I think a bigger shift has occurred, and it's possible those times will not return. As such, it's possible the $14 cocktail just really doesn't make sense any more. The $28 entree ought to be rare. Cut portion sizes. Buy less expensive glassware. Be creative in creating value. I fear that if this doesn't happen, more places will close at an even faster rate than we experienced last year.
Because I love restaurants. If frequenting the majority of them doesn't seem worth the money to me, who is it going to appeal to?
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