Being a diner used to mean freedom of choice, and sometimes those choices seemed daunting. Neophytes visiting fancy restaurants were frequently overwhelmed by lengthy, complex menus in foreign languages.
Today that situation has been resolved for customers in high-end restaurants through the miracle of the tasting menu. You pay a set price and receive a predetermined number of dishes in a fixed order. The only choice you need to make would be wine, but many restaurants also offer a “sommelier’s wine pairing” in which a glass of wine accompanies each course for an additional fee.
This apparent triumph of personal freedom may not be as liberating as it seems. There are currently 14 restaurants in the U.S. that hold three Michelin stars, the highest possible accolade. All but one impose a mandatory tasting menu on their guests, and the cost of an evening in one of these places is far from cheap. In New York City, Masa, a sushi joint, charges $595 per person before beverages, tax and tip. Thomas Keller’s Per Se starts out more reasonable, but rises to close to $700 per head if you take all the menu supplements (caviar, truffles, etc.). You can do the math, but $2000 for two is not unexpected in either case.
Of course, most of us don’t dine regularly at Michelin-starred restaurants, but there has been a considerable trickle-down effect with set menus. Virtually every restaurant with pretensions to greatness offers one, and there are more and more places where consuming it is mandatory. What’s behind this trend?
Economics, pure and simple: a set menu greatly reduces the volume of food that needs to be stocked on any given day, and the chef doesn’t have to worry about spoilage. It decreases food cost by eliminating waste. From the customer’s perspective, things are not quite so rosy. The elements of freedom and choice have been totally eliminated—you eat whatever is put in front of you. Do you fancy pot roast rather than curried octopus? You’re out of luck. And what about dietary restrictions? On a party of four or more, you can probably get away with one person who doesn’t eat meat or shellfish or gluten, but any more than that will likely throw the establishment into chaos.
What if you want to spend part of your evening at the movies, or watching a concert or sporting event? As they say in Brooklyn, forget about it. Consuming a ten or twelve-course meal can easily take four or five hours: once you’re there, you’re in for the night.
From the restaurant’s point of view, though, that curried octopus isn’t going to sit around for a week before it gets thrown out, so the tasting menu is probably here to stay.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.