DINING’S DIZZY HEIGHTS
The cost of eating at a local restaurant and one at a very smart place has never been so small
WHEN we set out to compile a list of our most expensive restaurants, we immediately came up against a phenomenon that has little to do with fine dining.
By comparison with Europe, Asia or the US, “regular” eating out here — be it a good breakfast, a family meal in a simple bistro or a smartish meal with wine — has crept up to surprising price levels in Australia.
Either you’ve been abroad recently and noticed what you got for your Aussie dollar, or you’ve spoken to visitors staggered at what even a simple meal costs here.
The difference between an average meal with acceptable food and so-so service, and that of a really smart place run by caring professionals, has never been so small. In other words, a small increase in expenditure now equates to a quantum leap in standards. Something’s wrong. The top end of dining in Australia is relatively cheap. But the middle? It’s absolutely nothing to drop $250 to $300 for a very average night out for two in a modest, unambitious restaurant in any Australian capital city. It will be a meal you’ll have forgotten next morning.
It goes something like this:
Pre-dinner drinks: $30 Two entrees: $40 Two mains: $70 One side: $10 Mineral water: $10 Bottle of wine: $60 Two desserts: $30 Subtotal: $250 10 per cent tip: $25
Sound familiar? The food was unremarkable, the service lacklustre and the wine list put together by a sales rep. It makes some of the restaurants in our top-end table (see breakout) seem absolute bargains by comparison.
At a forum at the Noosa International Food and Wine Festival this year, a panel of restaurateurs examined Australia’s restaurant costs.
“We are really expensive,” said Danielle Gjestland, of Noosa’s Wasabi. “We have nearly the highest wages in the world.
“We have an expectation of a quality of life and salary in Australia and that goes for everyone from restaurant worker to the guy who grows the carrot and the guy who drives the truck to deliver the carrot. And we have to pay for that.’’
John Fink, of Quay/Otto, said the industry was at “crisis point”. “Realistically people can’t work for less than what they’re earning now on the floor and in the kitchen and we can’t charge any more,’’ he said.
“Price point pressures are a lot higher in the fine dining arena. There’s a ceiling to prices and fine dining is pushing up against that ceiling. You can’t increase prices to solve that problem and the pressure behind the service structure is immense.”
And it’s not just our middle-ranked eateries that make dining at, say, Rockpool Sydney or Vue de Monde Melbourne seem like good value, it’s in comparison with their overseas equivalents, too.
As a recent analysis by the website Eater explained,
’We have an expectation of a quality of life and salary in Australia’
Per Se — a very lovely, highly rated restaurant in Manhattan that still represents my largest restaurant bill ever — can be startlingly expensive when you start ticking the options list. Sure, you can sneak in there on the basic menu — at a price that includes a no-option 20 per cent tip, and tax, and have dinner for $360 per head, without wine; $720 a couple, booze-free.
But what happens when you opt for supplements? Caviar, Australian truffle — an extra $US125, Wagyu beef, foie gras, and matched wine pairings? Go on all the rides and you will spend $1114 per head, including tax. Or $2228 per couple if your arithmetic is poor.
That makes Masa — in the same building overlooking Central Park, and almost certainly America’s most expensive Japanese restaurant — seem good value. At Masa, the wheel starts turning at $US450 ($480) per head before you add a tip (don’t figure on less than 20 per cent) and tax.
But you’re going to want the Kobe supplement ($US150 per head), which takes dinner to $US773 including tip and tax. Or $824.25 per head ($1648.50 per double) before wine. By the time you’ve enjoyed a pre-dinner drink, a bottle of something decent, paid tax and tipped on the beverage values, there’s just no way you could leave Masa without dropping $2000.
So let’s get some perspective: those same Manjimup truffles grated over three courses at Vue de Monde attract a supplement of $60, which seems positively cheap by Per Se’s standards, even when they cost you $66 with a 10 per cent tip. There’s food for thought.
In attempting to name Australia’s most expensive restaurants, we hit a few snags. Not all high-priced restaurants have top-flight tasting menus, for one. And while some do, they are, like Melbourne’s Grossi Florentino, for example, more likely to sell diners a set-price, traditional-portion a la carte approach to dinner at $90 for two courses or $120 for three rather than a longer series of similarly sized courses.
So our table sets out to compare, as closely as possible, apples with apples. Australia’s big nights out. The full monty, plus what $100 (or thereabouts) will buy you from the wine list. This too, proved fraught; there is no single wine common to every list at the pointy end of Australian restaurant dining.
We chose Australian wines because they’re better known, and sought labels common to as many restaurants as possible. With customer-specific discounts, it’s almost impossible for us to know the price a particular restaurant pays for a particular wine, so we’ve gone with a competitive retail price. And the winner is … Vue de Monde, Melbourne. No surprises there. And our indicative price is without the truffle supplement.
Second is Quay, Sydney. Again, that’s no real bombshell. Third might raise an eyebrow. Take the premier menu at Nobu Perth and you’re looking at a big ticket.
As Sam Christie of Longrain, Apollo and Cho Cho San in Sydney, put it at Noosa, “It’s a juggling act we can perform because we’re experienced but it’s a weird situation when you have a $100 bottle of wine and at least $40 of that is wages.”
Gjestland, of Noosa’s Wasabi, canvassed a number of solutions. “Prices up? No one will take that. Owners can work harder and we’re at the ceiling of that. Or we can try and save money on food and operating expenses — we’re at maximum efficiencies there.
“It seems that the way we do business is going to have to change. We are going to see a change whether we like it or not.”
Quay Berardo’s Restaurant Noosa
Vue de Monde