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Saturday, October 21, 2006

The $40 dinner


James Estrin/The New York Times
$8 A BITE? A lobster dish of 1 3/4 ounces is
offered by the Modern in New York. Its price: $42.


Entrees Break the $40 Barrier, and, Sorry, the Sides Cost Extra


By JODI KANTOR
Published: October 21, 2006

A new dish is appearing on menus across the nation. Restaurateurs say they have little choice other than offer it, though it horrifies many customers.

That item is the $40 entree.

Until recently, such prices were the stuff of four-star, white-tablecloth meals, the kind that ended with a diamond ring on the petit four tray. But now entrees over $40 can be found in restaurants that are merely upscale, where diners wear jeans and tote children. In geographic terms, New York and Las Vegas have led the charge, and in culinary ones, luxury items like steak and lobster were first and are still most prevalent.

But the $40 entree is migrating: to restaurants in Philadelphia, Fort Lauderdale and Denver, and to ingredients like fish and even pasta. Several national chains serve entrees priced above $40.

“Forty is the new 30,” said Richard Coraine, the chief operating officer of Union Square Hospitality Group, which recently began charging $42 for a 1¾-ounce appetizer portion of lobster at lunchtime at the Modern in New York. Ten percent of its lunch patrons order the dish, it says.

Hovering just below the $40 mark is an even vaster group of $38 and $39 entrees, waiting to cross the line like thirtysomethings approaching a zero-ended birthday. The arctic char at the Indianapolis branch of the Oceanaire Seafood Room chain is $38.50. Metropolitan Grill in Seattle serves shrimp scampi for $39.95. At Mike’s, a new steakhouse in Brooklyn Heights, $9.95 chicken nuggets share the menu with $38.95 veal chops.

Like the $100 Broadway ticket, $200 jeans and the $20 museum admission, the $40 entree is provoking a righteous burst of populist outrage, especially among those who pay their own way. When Angela Dansby, a Chicago diner, sees a 4 in front of a price, she thinks: “Either this must be out of this world, or it’s totally overpriced and I’m not going to order it. It’s usually the latter.” When she does pay, she compensates by skimping on appetizers and wine.

Restaurateurs say rising rents, ever more elaborate interior-decoration schemes and the increasing cost of premium ingredients — especially beef and fish — leave them little choice. Chefs, so fond of listing purveyors on menus, do not want those names to be Tyson and Del Monte. They “take pride in getting carrots or beets that no one has,” Mr. Coraine said.

Bobby Flay acknowledges that “the needle has moved very fast.” Mr. Flay recently crossed the $40 mark in his Las Vegas and Atlantic City outposts, though he says he intentionally loses money on many other entrees in order to keep prices reasonable. His entrees at Mesa Grill in New York top out at $34. (When it opened in 1991, the steepest entree was $19, or $28.30 when adjusted for inflation.)

But what makes the rise of the $40 entree so significant is not just the price creep, it’s the sophisticated calculation behind it. A new breed of menu “engineers” have proved that highly priced entrees increase revenue even if no one orders them. A $43 entree makes a $36 one look like a deal.

“Just putting one high price on the menu will take your average check up,” said Gregg Rapp, one such consultant. “My mom taught me to never order the most expensive thing on the menu, but you’ll order the second.”

posted by Steve @ 12:10:00 AM

12:10:00 AM

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