With St. Louis' more affordable wholesale food, staff salaries and rent, entrée prices at most fine-dining restaurants here fall into the high teens, with a selection or two in the low- to mid-$20 range. For example, the most expensive main courses at Zu Zu's Petals, our city's answer to the celebrity-chef restaurant, are the lamb chops, the 10-ounce filet mignon and the 14-ounce New York strip, all offered at $24.95. A dozen other entrées don't even hit the $20 mark.
The National Restaurant Association reports that food costs make up about 27 percent of the price of a full meal (excluding wine), but many restaurateurs insist that the proportion is higher. Savvy diners, they note, expect them to prepare labor-intensive or scarce products like diver-harvested scallops and white Alaskan king salmon. And the profit margin on those rarefied ingredients is slim. Like retail pharmacies, which paradoxically net less on brand-name drugs than on generic ones, the take on that $32 Dover sole is probably smaller than it is on the $23 trout. And even if an item comes cheap -- a run-of-the-mill feed-lot chicken, say -- flavoring agents and garnishes like truffle oil and hand-gathered organic herbs up the ante. Food costs are rising by almost 3 percent a year -- not skyrocketing, maybe, but still outpacing the inflation rate.
Why haven't patrons of New York's Le Cirque 2000, for instance, flinched at laying out $35 for a first course of foie gras? Perhaps a backlash against incessant health admonitions has dovetailed with the climate of economic gluttony, making flush customers more preoccupied with their ballooning portfolios than with their bloated bellies. So bring on the St. Agur blue cheese, the Muscovy-duck confit, the Malpeque oysters. But will this lip-smacking improvidence continue with abandon? One Manhattan restaurateur recently struck off his menu a Kobe steak priced at nearly $200 -- even New Yorkers, it seems, have their limits.