Semilla in South Williamsburg, named one of America's best new restaurants by both Eater and Bon Appetit, and awarded four stars by this critic in April, has raised the price of its dinner menu for the first time since opening in late 2014. A vegetable-centric tasting of eleven or so courses will now run $85, a modest $10 price hike. That means Semilla now costs the same as Momofuku Ko did in 2008, which is another way of saying it's still a very approachable affair in our era of $200 omakase experiences. Chefs Pam Yung and Jose Ramirez-Ruiz are also contemplating an alternative to tipping as the price of running a restaurant is set to go up in January, when New York raises its minimum wage for tipped workers.
So why did the 18-seat Semilla, a prime candidate for a Michelin star later this week, hike its prices? Here's what Ramirez-Ruiz had to say via email: "We've known all along that a price increase would likely be necessary after our first year of operation simply due to steadily rising costs (i.e. rent hikes, further investment into our employees and their benefits, forthcoming wage laws, expansion or renovation efforts, etc)."
He went on: "As you know we put most of our energy into sourcing not only the best product, from responsible/sustainable, and whenever possible, local sources. Equally important is the sustainability of the business and the livelihood of our employees, from top to bottom, front to back. We are a very tiny free-standing restaurant that doesn't have a bar or a more casual concept that may help offset costs usually associated with restaurants carrying a higher cost of operation (higher labor demands, top quality product, limited cover counts). For us, it is critical that there is a realistic view of the price of doing things "right" as we see it. And good food (good-tasting and good-for-the-world/future), even vegetables, come at a price. We also want to be able to feed not just the super rich or privileged, but be accessible to a wider range of clientele. That said, we also need to have a viable business for years to come."
But will Semilla take the in vogue route of replacing tipping with a service charge (which can be legally complicated in New York, even when described as an administrative fee) or a with service-included system (the Per Se route, which involves raising prices by at least 20 percent)? Such policies are increasingly attractive as New York is set to increase its minimum wage for tipped workers by $2.50 to $7.50/hour, a raise that threatens to widen the income divide between those who cook your food and the frequently better paid individuals who serve your food.
"That is definitely something that we have been considering but are not set on yet," Ramirez-Ruiz wrote when asked about service-charges and service-included policies. "As a diner, it makes sense to not have to worry about tip; but of course it is different in the diner's perspective when it is an obligatory vs voluntary fee. It will also provide the added benefit of shrinking the massive disparity between the front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house...Servers at establishments like ours make easily twice as much as cooks and dishwashers which it is not necessarily a bad thing but it definitely creates unwanted tension. I very much look forward working in an industry that finally pays servers (without the need of a tip) a living wage that allows them to be proud members of society just like teachers, designers, social workers etc...There are a lot of things that come into play. As of now we are doing some calculations and evaluating all our options in that matter before we make any final decisions."
Semilla remains an affordable enclave in a year that has seen the appearance of very expensive set menus at institutions like Chevalier ($74 for two courses, $96 for three), Gabriel Kreuther ($98-$185), and the very good O Ya ($185-$245), which this critic awarded a strong two stars.
Dinner for two, after tax and tip, will now cost $219 at Semilla. Add on wine pairings at $50 for six pours (which you should because going by the glass can cause you to rack up much higher per person beverage bill) and your meal will run $348. Ramirez-Ruiz said the pairing price might increase too by $5-$10 to show off higher quality selections.