When we reported on this phenomenon last September, it seemed like a one-off: The French Laundry in Napa had just instituted a special menu to celebrate their resumption of indoor dining. For a mere $850 per person, you could enjoy a glittering tasting menu that included truffles, Regiis Ova caviar, foie gras, wagyu beef, a bottle of 2006 Dom Pérignon, and “extended canapés and dessert service.”
It was excessive, but it was The French Laundry after all. According to the reservation system, it’s no longer being offered—probably not for any lack of demand, but most likely because Gavin Newsom brought down a slew of negative press on the restaurant when he indulged with a party of twelve, indoors and maskless, in violation of his own pandemic guidelines. Dinner will once again cost a minimum of $350 per person, including service but not wine.
Not surprisingly, the inflated tasting menu has reached Manhattan. At Per Se, Chef Thomas Keller’s other three-star Michelin establishment, you can now book an $850 “Evolution Menu” in addition to the standard $355 nine-course offering. With tax, the Evolution Menu for two comes to nearly $1,900, again with service but without wine. Even at $355, you’re looking at a tab of $1,000 for two.
At Masa, the three-star Michelin sushi bar known for stratospheric prices, lunch or dinner now starts at $650, with the option to book the chef’s counter for $800. With tax, that results in costs of $1,415 and $1,742 respectively for a party of two. Those prices are far in excess of what you’d pay for similar food in Tokyo—yet at Masa, as at Per Se, tables are normally booked up weeks or months in advance. It’s worth noting that earlier this year, Masa received the maximum $5 million grant from the government’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
These prices are not unusual, particularly for the best sushi joints in New York City. Most of them forego a la carte menus in favor of an omakase, or chef’s choice, experience. Current omakase pricing at top restaurants includes Noda ($378), Noz ($395), Uchu ($396), and Onadera ($400).
What’s going on here? Certainly, both Masa and Per Se are reputed to be spectacular; no one is alleging the experience isn’t worth it, and operating costs in both cases are likely to be staggering (Masa has all of its fish flown in daily from Japan). But it seems obvious that the pandemic has exacerbated the income gap between rich and poor, and those who can afford to do so are reaching new heights of conspicuous consumption. More than 50% of Americans now make less than $30,000 per year. To put it another way, slightly more than half of us are taking home less money per month than some people are spending on dinner. One has to wonder where we’re heading.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats.