July 21, 2005

Conspicuous consumption

Lunch in New York, at a place with cachet, no matter that the cachet may be old, is conspicuous. Many are there to be seen, to see, to impress, to negotiate, to cut a striking figure, to cut a deal, to flatter, to flirt, or sometimes, to dine. But much of the time it is done conspicuously.

I just had lunch with an old friend. A friend who is both older than I am and a person with whom I have been friends with for long enough to qualify as an old friend. He was retired for some years, got bored, and is now back in the international finance game. In other words, he could afford to take me to a $250 lunch (I didn’t mean to see the bill, but I did). $250 for lunch in New York is also conspicuous. Lunch for two people. One bottle of wine. It was delicious, don’t misunderstand, but a part of me none the less is embarrassed by having been taken to a $250 lunch. That, by the way, was before tip.

What does one eat for $250? A bowl of chilled fennel soup with grilled tiger prawn and saffron oil followed by a burger. Not just any burger, mind you, but a burger of chopped sirloin stuffed with braised short rib, fois gras, and black truffles. We drank something white and delicious and I never actually got to see what it was. We spent about two hours there and caught up with each other.

On one hand, it was a delight. Catching up with a dear friend who is whip smart and well educated and opinionated is great fun. On the other hand, it was done in a restaurant not in my tax bracket and I think that made me a little bit uncomfortable. I can’t quite puzzle out why but I thought I could try here. Maybe it was the huge disparity in wealth between the two of us, although that never bothered me before. Maybe it was the in your face nature of the restaurant. Maybe it was being served wine in the middle of a very hot day – I am now officially sleepy, by the way. Maybe it was the sheer expense and the thought that $250 could have been spent better or wiser or just that it seemed like a lot of money to spend for lunch. Maybe I’m just hopelessly middle class.

Either way, I tried not to be conspicuously middle class. There was enough that was already conspicuously on display without me being there, too.


I finally figured out what really bothered me about that lunch: it made me feel like we got suckered. It wasn't worth $250. I have spent that much and more on dinners before, really fine dinners. I should not, or my friend should not, have to spend that much at a place billed as a bistro. The food was quite good, but not great. The service was competent and professional, but not at the top of the game. The room was packed too closely together and too noisy. For $250 the restaurant should furnish you with more of a quiet hum than a loud roar. Conclusion? The meal did not represent good value for the money. And that's why I was so uncomfortable. I walked out feeling like a mark, a sucker, like we were just conned out of a lot of money.

I feel better now that I figured it out. A day later, mind you, but better late, etc.

Thanks for all the comments!

Posted by Random Penseur at July 21, 2005 03:40 PM | TrackBack

RP, I'll make you a deal. The next time someone offers to take you to a place like that, give me a call. My southern "accent" will make people think I'm quaint and I can find out what a burger stuffed with liver tastes like.

Do you know if they server Coca-Cola in a bottle?

Posted by: Howard at July 21, 2005 04:39 PM


Good for you RP, live it up. Make the rest of us proud!!

Posted by: Wicked H at July 21, 2005 06:13 PM

I have always been rather glad that my culinary taste is rather in the common vein. I would much prefer two dogs with ketchup, a medium soda, and fries from Walter's in Mamaroneck than probably anything any fancy-schmancy restaurant in the city has to offer.

Still, I remember once one of my dining clubs back in St Andrews had a meeting in the restaurant of a five-star hotel, and I ordered a soup which in retrospect I should have known I wouldn't like, and after they saw I was not keen on it they (completely unrequested) took it off the bill. Top notch service!

Posted by: Andrew Cusack at July 21, 2005 06:19 PM

hopelessly middle class?

i happen to think middle class is the most fun.

one gets to occasionally play high class...without all the trappings of actually being it
one is reminded often enough of what it is like to have very little...which keeps the dollar in perspective.

*raises hand*
i'll take hopelessly middle class, please.

i am glad you had a wonderful visit with your friend.

Posted by: sn at July 21, 2005 08:35 PM

I will side with SN on this one. There's really nothing "hopeless" about being middle class.

You're sophisticated enough to know what you were eating- You didn't burp out loud, wipe your mouth with your sleeve, and hopefully didn't gulp the wine in one fell swoop.

It's probably what I would've done.
And I probably would've smacked the waitress on the backside.

Posted by: Rob at July 21, 2005 09:00 PM

Let's do lunch, RP. You buy, I'll fly!!!!

Posted by: Mark at July 22, 2005 09:35 AM

That's what it costs for McDonalds in Oslo! Seriously, you shouldn't worry about the money. It wasn't yours..Sometimes a friend likes to splurge on another friend. I let my friends do it for me all the time.

Posted by: Dr pants at July 22, 2005 05:21 PM

Psst - Wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge?

I know exaxtly what you mean. There are times that I have been in similar situation and I feel like there should be some recourse. Unfortunately, in the case of a restaurant, you have consumed the goods before the check arrives. Is it impolite to hurl it back up in protest?

Posted by: Mark at July 25, 2005 12:36 AM

Hey, Random, thought I'd drop by and see what's up over here. Glad to see you're all moved in and enjoying the house. :-)

The most expensive meal for two I've ever sat down to was around $350.00 for a dinner at a fancy-schmancy five-star big-shot-chef restaurant in our area a couple of years ago.

And I've had lunches for two off and on that definitely made one's eyebrows shoot up in surprise when the bill came. Although I don't *think* we ever hit $250 for lunch. We've come close, though.

But you know what? Overall, as beautiful and delicate as those meals were, as fresh and rare the ingredients tasted, as delightful as the wine was and as famous as the chef was supposed to be and all that, overall my most memorable meal experiences in my life have not come from the times we dined at the Popular Expensive Restaurant of the Moment.

No, my best meal experiences have come from biting into fresh, crisp, flavorful sandwiches made by some little deli nobody ever heard of that we found in the middle of nowhere, or enjoying insanely huge homemade burritos, tortilla chips hot from the oven with fresh guacamole in a hot, noisy family-owned Mexican restaurant, washing it all down with cold, dark beer, or recently when I finally talked my husband into trying the *awesomely* great creamy hummus at East West Cafe and watching his face break into a big smile at the amazing flavor.

Walking out not only pleasantly full from all the tasty food we'd tried, but having paid the grand sum of $28.00 for the entire dinner (sans tip, which Dan made sure was magnificant).

You just can't beat that feeling. Eating well and paying a reasonable amount of money for it. Makes you feel on top of the world, times like that.

I'm with you, Random, the times I've had the teeny, weeny portions looking somewhat lost on the giant white platters, the oh-so-carefully-prepared "creations", and the absurdly expensive wine, I've often felt oddly...gypped afterwards.

Like, "Is that all there is?" and "Was that really worth a week's worth of groceries?"

Posted by: Amber at July 25, 2005 02:44 PM

Sounds as if they ruined a good hamburger. We have some places down this way (Charleston, Charlotte, Savannah) that are getting pricey like that for lunch. I'm like you, while they are quite nice, $250 for lunch at a Bistro is a bit much. And as Dr. Pants said, your friend wanted to treat you, that's the most important thing.

Posted by: Phyllis at July 25, 2005 03:09 PM

I had the same feeling with my $35 burger at the Westin in Chicago. It was a good burger but I could have had a better one for $6 at Fuddruckers. I don't have a problem with a $35 dinner and I had a hankering for a burger. I was hoping for a burger that would knock my socks off, since that's what the price indicated.

That ripped off feeling really sucks.

PS - Don't go for hot wings at the Westin either. Same dealio.

Posted by: Jim at July 25, 2005 04:35 PM

Another very relatable experience. For me though there have been different reasons for each experience.

I've dated a few 5 star chefs, as a result I've learned from the best about good food, good service etc. Knowing how huge their profit margin is, for me it's very hard to even go to one of these restaurants and then on top pay any amount for sub-par or good service when I know that a better experience could be achieved for much less or in a better more comfortable setting (like my dining room).

I've also had the experience of being looked down upon at Le Cirque simply because I wasn't wearing Burberry, Prada, etc. That was until the Exec Chef came joined us at my table. Then it was about trying to figure out who these nobodies were.

Posted by: Michele at July 26, 2005 07:56 PM
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