My friend Coco kindly loaned me her copy of Anthony Bourdain's book Medium Raw many months ago. Shamefully I have yet to return it. Part of the reason is because I find myself often rereading part three, titled The Rich Eat Differently Than You And Me. He describes what he calls the Cipriani Model: the idea that the rich will pay outrageous sums to eat marginal food as long as they can be secure in the knowledge that others in their set will choose to do so at the same place. Places he describes with the words, "...restaurants that any food nerd with a Web site and a few bucks would walk sneeringly by."
I'll have to take M. Bourdain's word for that, as I have no plans whatsoever to hit the Rainbow Room or Cipriani. But as a food nerd I've noticed a trickle down of sort of thing. The most expensive meals I've had were rarely among the best, and when I think about my favorite places to eat, very few of them even qualify as moderately priced restaurants. That's not to belittle the work of the great chefs out there and the justifiably popular restaurants they operate. I just fail to see a strong correlation between the amount on the check and the deliciousness of the food when dining out, though I feel like I should. And I take issue with that.
I have nothing but my own experience to go on here, which tells me in most situations one hits a wall somewhere around $40 per person for dinner. I'm pretty convinced that after that point added expense has little to do with the quality of what arrives on your plate. (Sushi excluded, of course). After that you're paying for a place's prestige, its location and the privilege of dining among others who have no qualms shelling out that kind of money. That last one is key. You're not just paying for food costs, staff, rent and whatever other set costs one would assume contribute to the total sum. Tacitly or overtly you're paying to associate with members of a specific class, whether it's the one you happen to be a member of, or aspire to be.
There's nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. People have every right to eat at a place that's within their comfort zone, or even their aspiration zone. A nice place with a specific clientele, decor, service, wine list, etc... Maybe they even brag about how they source some of their ingredients. But will the food be "better" than at a place with lesser standards? Maybe yes, maybe no. Because the food only has to meet the expectations of the target audience. That's why the $30 plate of good (but not amazing) spaghetti exists in New York City. It all depends on your comfort zone.
But you know what? That ain't for me. I've tried for years to appreciate things like decor and service, and I've made peace with the fact that beyond a certain point I simply don't. I do not care how cute a place is, and as long as the service isn't completely feckless or rude I'm fine. The social status of the other diners in the room? I hope to be too engrossed in my meal and conversation to notice.
Which brings me back to the food itself: if the bill approaches $40 per person (or sails right past that) it had better be excellent. Because I know where to get excellent food for under $10 a plate in this town; fail to impress and I'm done with you. Helps to have a pretty broad comfort zone, admittedly.