The Hess Report


Monday, March 07, 2005

Restaurant Price Points 

I was involved with a broad range of restaurant price points this weekend.

On Friday, culture!Joy and I met some friends in the legal district for dinner, then headed to the Symphony. Beethoven and Brahms. For me, Beethoven is like the Internet and Pizza, in that I'll say, respectively, God Bless the Internet/Beethoven and There's No Such Thing As Bad Pizza/Beethoven. It was a piano concerto, played by a 24 year old guest because the featured pianist for the evening cancelled due to illness. From our seats, he seemed to be very tall and have enormous hands. The fact that he could play the piece at all puts him on a different level than 99.9999% of human beings, and the fact that he played it so well and obviously had fun doing so is just silly.

Anyway, back to restaurants. We ate at The Common Plea, as legal-themed Italian place. Not cheesy-themed as the popular chains are today with, say, Corben Bersen's jacket from LA Law hanging on the wall or an animatronic Lance Ito. More like the menu is written and looks like a summons; dark and woody inside like an ancient law office. The food was very good, but no more so than the Olive Garden's. The selection was a notch up from that, though, with a daily special of cajun sugar-crusted salmon with crab meat. Cost for a plate of pasta: $18. To me, that's the best indicator of a restaurant's price range. How much do they charge for a plate of pasta that cost them $0.50 in materials? I'm not complaining about the price, it's just my point of comparison. Overall, good food, excellent service (although I don't prefer the extreme deference and humility on display at places like this), and a very nice atmosphere. Total bill for four people, with one drink, before tip: $121.

Sunday, Maddie went to a birthday party at one of the local bowling/laser tag/arcade places, and slumming!Joy, Lucy and I hoofed it across the parking to Eat N Park, a diner chain. No need to describe the food beyond "filling" and "needs salt." Plate of pasta at EnP: $5. Total bill for three before tip: $17. One note here is that our service at this EnP was exceptionally good by their standards. The woman who waited on us should be waiting tables someone a lot nicer with better tips.

Also over the weekend, we saw my sister, who is a waitress at both Outback Steakhouse and a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. Apparently, a table of five at Ruth's Chris can drop $270 on a dinner. That's a lot of money. I don't even know what a plate of pasta costs there, but I should find out so I can do a true comparison. For purposes of being lazy, I'll assume that it's in the $25-30 range.

So, is Ruth's Chris food ten times better than Eat N Park's? Possibly it is, but I suspect that food yumminess is a diminishing returns kind of thing: once something is tasty enough, it's hard to make it taste even better. And at a certain point, you're not really enhancing the flavor at all. You're just pretending to. Was the service at The Common Plea significantly better than the service at EnP? Surprisingly not, although our EnP experience was unusually good this weekend.

My point? Basically this reinforces the notion that I touched on last year around this time in The Price of Luxury that certain places charge x times more not because it costs them proportionally more to deliver their goods or services, but because in a way, their price is also their product. There are people, plenty, and Thank-You-God-Bless-America, that are willing to pay more for something simply because it costs more. You are paying for a slightly better actual product, while guaranteeing for yourself that you will not have to encounter anyone on a peer level who cannot afford to pay for that product, as well as to avoid having any appearance that one may have consumed products of a lesser cost.

Some people will read that as a rip on people who do that, but the truth is that everyone does it. Why don't we take the kids downtown and eat at a soup kitchen for free? We generally try to avoid, on a peer level, the clientele that frequents soup kitchens, and the food there is probably on the lower end of the yum curve so it could actually be very very bad, and we happen to have the resources to avoid doing that. The odds are that if you're reading this, so have you. For once, I'm not value-judging here. I'm just saying. Would I like to have enough $ to pop a $300 bottle of wine at lunch a couple of times a week? Absolutely. Do I begrudge anyone else that can afford to do so? Of course not, and that's one of things I love about this country. We can walk into a crummy shack diner, a mid-size chain, a local Chinese place, or the joint where the DA and local politicos hold their weekend parties, and everywhere, the staff will smile, fill your water glass, and happily take your money. Okay, they might not smile at the shack diner, but they'll still take your money and bring you food.

Like the Internet, money is a great anonymizer; like a gun, it's a great equalizer. And I think that's pretty cool.

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