Masa, the priciest restaurant in America, is about to get a bit more expensive, a development that will likely have a larger impact on the people who work there than the well-heeled folks who can afford to dine there.
Masa Takayama's three Michelin-starred establishment, located in Manhattan's Time Warner Center, will eliminate tipping in March and hike its menu price to $595, a move that will help the venue "maintain talent across the board" and provide its employees with a "more consistent and reliable paycheck," according to Masa's director of human resources, Christine Panas.
This all means that lunch or dinner for two, after tax, will cost no less than $1,300. Add on drinks and a date will run more than a MacBook with Retina display.
"Both cash and credit card gratuities will be respectfully declined," the restaurant told Eater through a spokesperson. "Reflecting the Japanese custom, exceptional hospitality is an integral part of the Masa dining experience and is provided to every guest."
Many of New York's restaurants are raising prices and eliminating tipping as a way to help manage labor costs in the wake of the state raising its minimum wages in January, and in anticipation of a possible $15 minimum for all workers by 2018 in the city.
Currently, Masa charges $450 per person, which works out to $1,169 for two after tax and tip. By comparison, the city's only Michelin two-star sushi restaurant, Ichimura, costs $502 for two. So think of Masa as an $670 surcharge for that extra star (or closer to $800 under the new pricing scheme).
That's a lot for dinner, but give Takayama credit for stability; he hasn't really changed his price since 2008, notwithstanding a $50 recession discount in 2009. Also keep in mind the $450 menu works out to $540 after gratuities, which means diners are only paying about $55 more than before under the new price (or a touch more than that with tax).
Lisa Limb, Masa's director of operations, attributed the price hike to the "new staff wages," as well as to "the considerable escalation in the costs of operating a restaurant in NYC."
And then there are the discounts – sort of. Like Thomas Keller's Per Se, Masa is famous for its astronomically priced supplements. The Ohmi beef add-on, currently $150 for a few bites, will remain as is, which means guests will get a de facto break since they no longer need to add gratuity. Same goes for the $68 white truffle ice cream, a single scoop priced like a quenelle of osetra caviar.
Wine, sake, and cocktail prices will remain at the current levels too, without seeing the typical 20 percent increase that often accompanies a transition to "service-included." In fact those who regularly spend $275 or more per person on beverages and supplements (not difficult at all) will likely see a guest check that's the same or lower than their current Masa bill. It's a reality, of course, that benefits those with the means to spend more. More frugal diners will still end up shelling out a few extra bucks.
Masa has been extraordinarily spendy since its birth. The omakase-only venue opened in 2004 at $300, a price that's still more expensive than all but one of our city's toniest 2016 culinary establishments – Kurumazushi.
Takayama's flagship, along with Per Se, is largely responsible for significantly raising the bar on what New Yorkers would spend on food. Think of it this way: once a reputable venue starts charging tons of money for a product, the next priciest venue all of a sudden seems just a hint cheaper (and gains a bit of leverage in raising its own prices).
In the decade since Takayama rode into a pre-crash Manhattan, piece-by-piece omakase sushi — once a domain of those in the know at Yasuda, Gari, Kuruma, and elsewhere — has become a cultural phenomenon, thanks in no small part to the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
In the past two years, New York has seen a flurry of new high-end kaiseki and omakase venues, including Shuko, Kosaka, Nakazawa, and Sushi Zo. And later this spring, Ginza Onodera will open just off of Bryant Park, charging anywhere from $300 to $350 for its omakase.
All of these venues also present a much more relaxed and affordable alternative to Takayama's flagship. Shuko, populated by ex Masa-chefs, charges $175 for a twenty-plus course omakase. And Nakazawa, helmed by a Jiro alum, asks $150.
Masa, like Per Se, was an early adopter of patrons not having to tip. But unlike Keller's French-inspired venue, Takayama charged a 20 percent administrative fee, which it eventually dropped in favor of traditional tipping following a class action lawsuit over that charge, as well as over the disbursement of additional gratuities.
Four of the city's three Michelin-starred restaurants are now service-included, with three having switched over in the past year: Eleven Madison Park, Masa, and The Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare (The Chef's Table had long employed a service charge but started expressing its menu as a single price in 2015). Jean-Georges and Le Bernardin are the only remaining members of that exclusive club that now employ traditional tipping models.