There's no question that prices at Boston's top-tier restaurants have gone up. But do chefs really believe their chicken or fish dishes are worth $34 and steak $40 and up, or do they think diners - that's you and me - confuse cost with quality?
(Photo by Wiqan Ang)
In early February, when I was looking over a menu from the newly renovated Rialto restaurant in Harvard Square, this item caught my eye: "Grilled Wolfe's Neck sirloin steak with sliced portobello mushroom, arugula and endive salad, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and truffle oil," for $43.
Now, Rialto is situated in The Charles Hotel, where the cheapest rooms go for is $249 a night midweek, just across the way from Harvard University, where a four-year college education runs close to $200,000. It is a good hotel restaurant. Still, I wondered, why would a steak entree cost $43? Beef is not a scarce ingredient, never mind the cultivated portobello mushrooms or the flavored oil that is to real truffles as portobellos are to foraged morels.
In passing the $40 mark for entrees, Rialto is far from alone, in the Boston area or in any city with a fine dining scene. "Humanely Raised New York State Veal Chop" costs $46 at Excelsior, overlooking the Public Garden. "Bone-In Filet Mignon" is $41 at Abe & Louie's in Back Bay. And, in spite of the restaurant's name, the $39 sirloin strip steak at KO Prime is actually USDA choice beef and it comes without sides, which cost $6 to $9 each. (KO's salmon costs $34 with nothing on the side.) There are also entrees in the $40 range at, in no particular order: Aujourd'hui, Moo, Radius, Icarus, Pigalle, Mistral, Sorrelina, Sasso, Locke-Ober, and plenty of places in the North End. At some area restaurants, multi-course tasting menus with wine can cost $400 per couple, including tax and tip. I wanted to know if this was a sign of Boston's dining scene evolving into something better, or if chefs are merely charging what they know diners in the region will pay.
"I think they're charging high prices because they can serving food to people who are grateful to have what they consider big city food," says Anthony Bourdain, the author, commentator, and chef-owner of several Brasserie Les Halles restaurants in New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C. "I think what's going on in Boston is a classic example of chefs working in a place that's not yet a national restaurant city, not by a stretch. It's a period of insecurity. And I can really understand why the chefs are charging so much: If prices come down, they lose their mystique as chefs. They're reluctant to abandon their pomposity, expense, and pretense." Ouch.
In and around Boston, rents and staff costs can be high. Cuts of meat, ambience, service, and chef salaries vary. But even when the best ingredients are prepared by the most talented chefs and served in the poshest settings, $45 or $39 or even $34 for an entree is hard to stomach. Where's the value? Paying that much might make sense if you're in town visiting your kid at college, or celebrating an anniversary, or you're hosting a business meal and can write it off as an expense. But for people who love good food and want to eat well without spending huge bucks, these high prices are bad news. As chefs set their culinary sights higher, it seems, good restaurants with midrange prices the exact kinds of places Boston's top chefs say they like to eat in are fewer and farther between.
Of course it's hard to compare the Boston area to New York. Plenty of restaurants there sell $40 entrees, and the larger population there also supports more restaurants at every price level. Still, people who work in both places say they see different attitudes about value. Drew Nieporent is CEO of the Myriad Restaurant Group, which owns Nobu New York and nearly a dozen other restaurants, most of them in New York. "We manage The Coach House on Martha's Vineyard, and I'm constantly controlling prices," he says. "The chef will say, You can get $40 for entrees, it's summer, people don't care,' but I don't agree. With the exception of a $39 lobster dish, entrees at Nobu are all below $30."
The Case for and Against the $43 Steak
I decide to look more closely at the Rialto steak. A Google search reveals that Wolfe's Neck Farm is a brand name used by the Pineland Farms Natural Meats company of New Gloucester, Maine. It sounds like just one farm, but the company actually sells beef raised on more than 150 family farms according to certain standards: the cattle are treated with no antibiotics and no hormones, "strictly vegetarian" (some cattle raised in the US are given meat-, milk-, and blood-derived feed), and "grass-fed."
These all check out as pretty good farming practices, until I get to "grass-fed." Sure, all cows eat grass, but it turns out that calling Wolfe's Neck beef "grass-fed" isn't quite right. According to Richard Hunt, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, Wolfe's Neck cattle are fed grain for 150 days before slaughter in order to get more fat in the meat. Far from being a way to distinguish Wolfe's Neck, this is a fairly standard industry practice for much of the beef on the US market, says a fellow producer. "One hundred and fifty days of grain is nothing but conventional, commodity feedlot beef," says John Wood, CEO and founder of U.S. Wellness Meats, a company in Monticello, Missouri, that sells its own version of grass-fed beef its cattle eat grass for the entirety of their 18- to 24-month lives. It also turns out that Wolfe's Neck beef is not an exclusive restaurant product; you can buy it at 159 Hannaford supermarkets throughout New England and New York. So to find out what else is special about the $43 steak at Rialto, I ask the chef, Jody Adams.
"Our beef is handpicked and dry-aged choice," Adams tells me. "Bill Kinnealey, the owner of William & Company, handpicks all our steaks." To understand what "handpicked" means, I call Ben Benson, owner of Ben Benson's Steakhouse in Manhattan. He's been in the business for 25 years. "It means it wasn't picked out of the fridge by someone's toes," he says. "It doesn't mean anything." Dry-aged is a little more promising, however. Unlike at Hannaford, William & Company, a distributor based in Roxbury, dry-ages the beef, which means the meat is allowed to sit in a cool, dry refrigerator for a minimum of 21 days, which gives it a denser flavor.
My last question, then, is about the designation "choice." This was actually a follow-up call after an initial confusion early this summer, when Adams told me the restaurant served only "prime" beef. "No one has ever complained about the beef not being prime," Adams tells me. "No one has even asked about it." Choice is the second-highest meat grade given out by the USDA, after prime and before "select" and "standard." These grades set wholesale prices. Ron Savenor, who owns butcher shops in Boston and Cambridge and supplies meat to many area restaurants, explains that, typically, the wholesale price of USDA prime beef is more than twice that of choice. "Wholesale prices in mid-June for sirloin were about $12.75 a pound compared to about $5.35 for a pound of choice," he says. "Prime always costs more. It tastes better."
When Adams eats out, she says, "I love going to my neighborhood places: Washington Square Tavern and Pomodoro. They're the type of restaurants I want to build next. But Rialto serves a function in the Harvard community a lot of politics and academic stuff goes on here." She's right, of course, but neither fact makes me feel any better about paying $43 for a steak.
I don't want to pick just on Adams, since Rialto has plenty of company in its price range. Ariane Daguin is a duck and chicken purveyor based in New Jersey. Her company, D'Artagnan, sells Giannone Farms-brand chicken to restaurants all over the Boston area and all over the country; last year it sold $24 million worth of birds. Daguin e-mailed me a list of Boston restaurants with a breakdown of what each chef charges for the entrees made from her supplies. Wholesale prices are all about the same around $4 per chicken but not menu prices. The chicken is the costliest at Radius, in the Financial District, where the bone-in breast is served with seasonally changing sides (last month that meant sweet corn, bacon, wild mushrooms, shiso, and consomme poured tableside) for $34. It's the least expensive at Petit Robert Bistro in Kenmore Square and the South End, where a roasted half-chicken comes with mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables and costs $14.75. This spring, it cost $32 at No. 9 Park on Beacon Hill, served roasted (the breast) and confit (the leg) with caramelized turnips, fines herbes salad, shaved black truffles, and a hint of foie gras in the juices served on the plate; it's off the menu now until winter or early spring.
Giannone Farms produces good chicken. But for an entree that costs more than $30, it should be better than good. Barbara Lynch, the chef who owns restaurants No. 9 Park, B & G Oysters, and The Butcher Shop as well as grocer Plum Produce, cookbook store and demonstration kitchen Stir, and caterer Niche Catour, used to serve chickens from Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania nationally recognized for its poultry at No. 9 Park. Those chickens cost about $11 each wholesale, and are served at Daniel Boulud's restaurant in New York as well as the Michelin-ranked restaurants owned by Thomas Keller (French Laundry, north of San Francisco, and Per Se in New York) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Jean Georges in New York). I ask Lynch why she switched to Giannones. "Cost," Lynch tells me, as simple as that. Lynch also says that her overall menu prices must stay high because, in addition to paying for rent and labor, "when purveyors come to eat here, they raise their wholesale prices." Her suppliers disagree. "You've got to be kidding," says Ron Savenor, who supplies meat to No. 9 Park. Adds Daguin: "I'd never do that."
You Can't Bake a Cake Without Breaking a Few Egos
By now, it should be obvious that it's not just the food that makes the restaurant. It's also the chef. Ken Oringer's new place, KO Prime he's not an owner of this one, just the consulting chef is located in the Nine Zero Hotel downtown. He compares his new steakhouse to the competition in the area. "Others have good steaks, but nothing else no foie gras, no sweetbreads, no creative fish entrees, no creative side dishes, no creative salads. Everything but their meat is mediocre."
Jay Murray, of Grill 23 & Bar in Back Bay, disagrees. "In the nine years since I've been the executive chef, we've put 1,500 items on the menu. We had foie gras, and went through about 6 pounds a day, but after 9/11 we couldn't sell it to save ourselves. We've served very young beef sweetbreads, too. I add five to six new items every Friday. No one's more creative." He continues: "I think KO Prime has a great menu. And the chef there is entitled to his opinion."
Oringer, who is chef and co-owner of Clio, Uni, and Toro, three of the city's hottest dining spots, recently opened a terrific taqueria on Lansdowne Street called La Verdad. But he speaks especially proudly of Clio, which he says, "is in a class by itself. I think we're at the level of a two-star Michelin restaurant."
No. 9 Park's Lynch has equally high ambitions for her well-known restaurant. "I want to be a world-renowned chef," says Lynch. "But I'm working on having a world-renowned restaurant, taking it to the next level." This isn't the first time Lynch and I have talked about her career. A few years ago in an interview, she told me she wanted to be "the Daniel Boulud of Boston," a reference to the New York chef whose Restaurant Daniel has two Michelin stars, and where dinner with wine averages about $200 per person. (Boulud, you recall, springs for the $11 chickens.) In the United States, the Michelin company rates only restaurants in New York and San Francisco, and its next two announced North American targets are Los Angeles and Las Vegas; its CEO, Jean-Luc Naret, says the company is testing the market before expanding. While
Lynch acknowledges that reaching Boulud's level used to be her personal goal, these days, she's more inclusive when she talks about her ambitions. "If we reach the next level, it will be because of the team at No. 9. Not just me."
Boulud speaks of Lynch with admiration, but he also talks about the challenges of running a world-class restaurant in Boston. "Barbara is a great chef with great concepts and ideas," he tells me. "She wants to be the best in Boston and her food is earthy, not avant-garde or complex. But does Boston have the demographics to support a luxury restaurant like mine? I don't think so. You have about 750,000 people and if you take away the students and academics, who don't patronize luxury too much, who's left?" He has a good point. "Look, I worked in D.C. for two years and moved to New York because this city can carry luxury. As soon as you go into a more provincial town, it's a different type of luxury. Let's just say that the best restaurant in Cleveland is not as good as the best restaurant in Chicago."
Now, it would be unfair to suggest that chefs Adams, Oringer, and Lynch are unique in the way they price many items on their menus or choose their ingredients other high-end restaurants operate the same way using the same purveyors. But since these chefs are among the area's most highly regarded, they set a standard.
Danny Meyer, CEO of the New York restaurant group that owns Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, among many others, says: "In the early part of a chef's career, it's not unusual to see them raising the price according to their own hopes as to how they want to be perceived as chefs. They think that the more things cost, the more respect they will get."
I asked Michelin's Naret what advice he offers to ambitious, talented chefs. "We have some chefs who think they have more talent than they actually have," he cautions. "I meet chefs who say they have worked, for example, with Ferran Adria [a world-recognized Spanish chef] for three or four months and think they can do what he does. So, first of all, don't try to shoot for stars. Use local products. Please local clientele. And don't try to overcharge because you think too much of yourself."
Turning the Tables on Diners
But before we really get the knives out for the chefs, plenty of experts argue that diners play a part, too. "Every city gets the restaurants it deserves," says Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. "You need great diners to hold the chefs to really high standards, people who want really good food, but don't want to spend hundreds of dollars." But there are diners who do. That $39 choice sirloin strip at KO Prime looks well-priced compared with the menu's most expensive item Wagyu beef, flown in from Japan, with a 3-ounce minimum order of the sirloin starting at $90. (At star chef Wolfgang Puck's Beverly Hills steakhouse, Cut, Wagyu beef sirloin costs $120 for 6 ounces. It's about 30 percent cheaper in Beverly Hills than in Boston.) Add those sides a sweet potato and fresh pea risotto, say and you're paying $107.
"Somebody doesn't know what they're doing if they order that," says Tim Zagat, CEO and cofounder of the Zagat Survey, which publishes dining guides for cities around the world. "It's really very pretentious, absurd, and excessive." James Oseland, editor in chief of Saveur magazine, is even harsher. "It's the culinary equivalent of a diamond pinky ring," he says, "a kind of cultural insecurity, a nascent provincialism that is ultimately reflected in the pricing."
But there's hope in that $14.75 chicken dish at Petit Robert Bistro, and elsewhere. Adams wants to open a neighborhood place next, not another fine dining restaurant. At Oringer's La Verdad, the taco plates start at $9.50. And, almost two years ago, Steve Johnson hit the target with Rendezvous, serving western Mediterranean-style food on Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square. "I've always wanted to own the kind of place I'd want to go to on my night off," Johnson says. "My personal feeling is that we have a lot of really great restaurants in Boston, but I think we could use more that are in the good category."
I agree, and I think diners should demand better. I tell chefs whenever I get the chance that I won't pay $42 for a rack of lamb. My 17-year-old son tells me it's not polite to talk about money at the dinner table, but I don't like that attitude. Be polite, I tell him, and pay the premium.
Scott Haas has reported about food for various magazines and NPR, and is the winner of a James Beard award for radio hosting. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.