Restaurant Pricing: What’s “Affordable” or “Reasonable”? (Published 2009/May)

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I read a Baltimore Sun review of a new Italian restaurant which praised the owner for keeping the cost of an entrée “under $30” and “affordable”.   It irked me a bit to find “affordable” defined in terms of an “under $30” entrée.  

Consider that at the same restaurant, adding a salad to a $25 entrée ($8 – not included!) plus tax and a average 15% tip adds up to $40 per person. (And that $40 doesn’t even include a glass of wine, or after-dinner coffee and dessert.) Is $40-50 per person what most people could reasonably afford to spend routinely for dinner? My ideas of an “affordable” entrée at an Italian restaurant is shaped by ordering Eggplant Parmigiana for $13 at the Olive Grove in Linthicum (which includes spaghetti plus all-you-can-eat salad and breadsticks for that price) or ordering Chicken Parmigiana for $18 at Chiapparelli’s in Little Italy (which includes their traditional chopped salad and a side of spaghetti). (Yes, I admit I like a bargain!). These enjoyable and satisfying “under $20” entrées strike me the type of “affordable” that’s more deserving of praise.

For me, an “under $10” entrée is cheap, an “under $20” entrée is moderate and “affordable”, a “$20-$30” entrée is expensive and an “over $30” entrée is for “special occasions” (and I expect it to better border on being exceptional and memorable).   Are prices proportional to quality? No. I feel the owners of many restaurants that routinely show up with the highest “Baltimore’s Best” rankings (and highest prices!) should also be awarded the “Baltimore’s Best Sales Marketing” rankings for convincing so many customers that “if you paid the most, you must have eaten the best!” Can very expensive restaurants be worth the price?   Yes. As an example, the memorable food & exceptional service at Fogo De Chao seemed worth $46. (Yet add a glass of wine and with tax and tip, you can be spending $65 per person. – I’ll confess that out of 3 times I’ve been to “Fogo”, I was “treated” once for a business dinner and again for my birthday!).  For most people, that’s a special occasion indulgence that they can’t afford to do regularly.   By contrast, I’m uneasy with “The Prime Rib” where entrée prices start at $30, food was good but not exceptional, overly close tables generated social claustrophobia and enforced rules that men must wear jackets riled me. (And why no enforced rule that women must wear dresses? With pearls perhaps? <Wink!>)

But let’s talk about cheeseburgers… a basic cheeseburger with fries can cost you from $7 to $15 at area “sit-down” restaurants. At Linwood’s – $14, at the CityCafe ($12 – no more 1/2 priced burgers on Mondays!), at the Mt. Vernon Stables – $10, at the Brewer’s Art lounge or “Mother’s Grill” – $9, at “The Dizz” or “Rocket to Venus” – $8, at Ruby Tuesday – $7.  At Annie’s on 17th St. in DC – the same will cost a whopping $15 – BUT a block away, the Trio offers the same for $8). Are the most expensive burgers worth double the price of the least expensive? I suspect that the results of a “blind” taste test would be right interesting! (I’d expect that the grass-fed, locally and organically grown burgers ($10) at Golden West Café would stand out in a “blind” taste test)

Or what about soft-drink and ice tea prices? Geez! After observing people paying $4 for coffee at Starbuck’s, too many restaurants have decided that they too can charge customers 10+ times what the drinks cost them. At the otherwise “affordable” Olive Grove restaurant, I was surprised to find that my ice tea cost $2.75.  Similarly, at inexpensive “Scoozi’s” in Dundalk, my ice tea ran $2.25 (25% of the price of my $8 big Chef Salad?)    This isn’t for gourmet, fancy schmantzy ice tea either! (It ALMOST makes me grateful that I can still buy a can of soda from a vending machine for a $1).  In protest, I avoid routine invites to go to over-the-top priced restaurants and order “water with lemon” instead of overpriced soft drinks more often as a matter of principle. If more of us stopped buying overpriced food and drink, would restaurant owners think twice before casually pushing the limits of “affordable” ever upward?

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