DIN­ING’S DIZZY HEIGHTS

The cost of eat­ing at a lo­cal restau­rant and one at a very smart place has never been so small

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - JOHN LETH­LEAN

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

To­tal: $275

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’

DANIELLE GJESTLAND

NOOSA’S WASABI

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

Rock­pool

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