Originally published 06/13/2016
By Bo Peabody
Measuring value at restaurants is most often reduced to two simple attributes: price and portions. The world is full of jokes about tiny, overpriced food: “Nouvelle Cuisine,” said comedian Mike Kalin “roughly translated, means: I can’t believe I paid ninety-six dollars and I’m still hungry.”
Value is, understandably, important to most people, whether they’re eating fast-food or sitting down to a twenty-course tasting menu. But it’s difficult to agree on what constitutes good value let alone agree on a common value metric. Value is, at its core, about fair return. Mcdonald’s sets the price of a Big Mac differently at each one of its restaurants depending on location, foot traffic, and geographic and demographic purchasing power. In a high-end restaurant, value is as much about the presentation, style, and pacing—the totality of the experience—as it is about any aspect of the food. Value is not simply the size of the sea bass on an oversized plate; true value comes from the perception of value for the guest.
Earlier this year, New York Times food critic Pete Wells took down Thomas Keller’s Per Se, one of the more lauded, and most expensive, restaurants in the country. This was not the first dismantling of the venerable restaurant—Ryan Sutton did it in Eater in 2014—but it banged home the point that “Per Se is among the worst food deals in New York.” If you’re charging $325 per person, the experience must be beyond exceptional. When Renzell begin compiling our inaugural list of NYC restaurants, Per Se scored remarkably low in a number of the categories we track, but it was exceptionally low (just about dead last) in value. For that reason it did not make our list of the current best restaurants in the city.
Value is one of those oft-overlooked attributes of places like Michelin and Zagat, which simply list prices as though it’s a disembodied factor. In high-end restaurants—where the expense of a meal can run several hundred dollars—value can be obtuse. People may have an intuitive sense of what any item should cost—maybe they bought some aged porterhouse at Whole Foods for $29.99/pound—but they have very little understanding of the true cost for the production an entire dining experience. Therefore, creating value at these high-end venues is about carefully curating the two to three hours guest experience in a way that meets the expectations that have been set. Per Se is not simply a bad value because it charges so much (it’s not the most expensive restaurant in the city, after all; that distinction goes to it’s neighbor, Masa). It’s a bad value because the experience does not meet the promise of its price.
Value does not just take center stage in times of economic ambivalence. All businesses strive to create and embellish value for their customers at all times. If in the restaurant world there is a general consensus that Per Se is no place to get value for your dining dollars, then which restaurants do deliver on the value promise?
Renzell tracks value—as it does with food, service, cocktails, hospitality, design, vibe, and wine/sake—within the data set collected from our 1,000 members and the database of several thousand individual restaurant surveys they’ve taken. Momofuku Ko, where the price of the experience begins at $195, is surprisingly close to the top of our ratings in the value category. Value is about what you receive for the money you spend: the structure of the experience, the vocabulary of the menu, the tone of the servers, the pacing of the meal, and even the details of the payment process.
The top of Renzell’s ratings for value include names you might expect—Contra and Battersby—and other less familiar restaurants such as Upholstery Store: Food and Wine and Traif. What’s most surprising is some restaurants near the bottom of the rankings—such as Morimoto, Charlie Bird and The East Pole Kitchen and Bar—which are not terribly expensive from a price perspective but clearly struggle to create an overall guest experience that meets the expectations they set.
In 1992, Tim Zagat and Joe Baum created restaurant week as a way to provide a service for the 15,000 reporters in town for the Democratic National Convention: a three course meal for $19.92. It opened the doors of high-end restaurants that were historically too expensive for someone earning a reporter’s salary and, in theory, introduced a whole cadre of new diners to food and experiences they may have never stumbled upon before. Value comes in all shapes and sizes. It starts with the price that gets you in the door, but it’s the experience that will tell you if it’s worth the cost of admission.