Over the last few years, a tectonic shift has occurred in New York’s rarefied power dining scene: High-end Japanese has supplanted fancy French or American as the prevailing medium for ultra-luxe and unrestrained blowout dining. At least 12 high-end sushi spots have opened in the past half decade, including Shuko, Ginza Onodera, Uchū at Ichimura, O Ya, Noda, and Noz. Those venues bolster an older omakase scene, repped by establishments like Azabu, Kurumazushi, and the king of them all, Masa, the priciest restaurant in the United States.
It says something about the state of haute consumer spending that the city can support so many of these oligarch-friendly spots — there are nearly 20 of them — which command $200 to $595 for a meal of fish over rice.
Price partly explains why these restaurants have become contemporary hubs for the wealthy and for chic expense account meals, but more nuanced phenomena also play a role. Here are six reasons why sushi restaurants lie at the apex of modern power dining.
1. They’re hot — but accessible if you’ve got the cash: The ideal client-dinner restaurant isn’t so wildly popular that you can only get in by pulling strings; civilians often face monthlong waits for prime time tables at Rezdôra, Lilia, or Cote. While any given sushi spot can book up a few weeks out, usually at least a few of the top-tier spots will have same-week or even same-day availability; they’re like the best seats on Broadway, whose stratospheric prices ensure a level of slack in demand.
2. They employ more casual dress codes than French spots (or no dress codes at all): “Rich people are done with fancy clothes,” Ali Wong’s character quipped in the film Always Be My Maybe, before going on to point out a dining room full of patrons dressed like artsy bohemians. That would accurately describe the patrons sitting next to me at Masa a few years back: a family in jeans, leather jackets, and graphic tees. Even though most posh New York spots employ more relaxed dress codes than in the past, you’d still feel a bit weird strolling into, say, Le Bernardin without a sports jacket or shiny shoes. Sushi is more relaxed.
3. They’re lighter and sometimes shorter than other luxe meals: The relative nimbleness of sushi — a tart bite of cured mackerel, an iron-y slice of lean bluefin, a fatty slab of toro — puts this style of restaurant in line with how the younger moneyed class likes to eat. That is to say, sushi does not wreak havoc on the digestive system like a porterhouse steak or a tasting that ends with four desserts; it falls more neatly into a class of Everyday Rich People Restaurants. And while a tasting at Sushi Inoue in Harlem is far from a trip to AbcV for green juice and mushrooms, it has more in common with Sweetgreen than Peter Luger. That’s truer of the cuisine’s dietary cultural cachet than its sustainability, to be sure — the city’s top sushi chefs serve so much bluefin they seem to be actively trying to rid the world of the endangered apex predator.
4. Enigmatically priced supplements and modest presentations allow well-heeled patrons to subtly flex their wealth: Few splurges embody the excess of pre-crash New York like a waiter parading a white truffle through the dining room at Per Se or Del Posto before shaving it over a plate of tagliatelle as onlookers inhale the pungent aroma. It’s the fine dining equivalent of Champagne with sparklers at brunch. That all still happens, but sushi feels more in line with coded, post-recessionary displays of wealth.
On a trip to Noz, four extra pieces of sushi appeared on the bill as $65. Then there’s Masa, which does not necessarily let diners know the price of the wagyu supplement (a humble plate of tataki for $150) or white truffle ice cream ($68, no tableside shaving) unless they ask. Casually dropping a PlayStation’s worth of bucks on a single course whose price isn’t published anywhere — not on a menu or website — is very modern wealthy.
5. There’s more privacy: Privacy is a relative thing, and there’s no getting around the fact that at a sushi spot you’ll be sitting at a bar with seven to 10 strangers. But for those who’d like to face a minimal number of prying eyes without reserving a private dining room, a sushi bar might be the best option. The limited space and astronomical prices severely restricts the number of people dropping by on a given night, and wealthy people are inclined to pay extra for such assurances, rather than face the unpredictability of a larger dining room. It also doesn’t hurt that, in the era of Instagram, most of the seats face the chef rather than other patrons.
6. Sushi caters to modern notions of craft and performative connoisseurship: If modern tasting menus at Atomix or Eleven Madison Park are an expression of the chef as auteur, sushi meals operate within a tighter band of tradition. Sushi, to many of those who can afford to eat it regularly, fits in with the popular exercise of “craft culture,” that woefully of-the-moment manifestation of modern luxury and dudeness. One thinks of high-end denim, bespoke titanium gravel bikes, and small-batch whatever. There are no fanciful sauce swirls in sushi — only knives, blowtorches, and hands. Any visual flourishes are more likely to invite appreciation over interpretation. You simply pick it up and eat it; sushi is food that does not distract.
More profoundly, sushi — like wine — rewards those who invest in meal after meal. The ability to understand what eight chefs do differently to a very similar piece of needlefish or tuna belly is an expensive education, as is sampling eight versions of the same grape vinted by different producers. This type of discrete knowledge is tough to fake when the dude next to you asks if you’ve tried the uni at Ichimura. Sure, your dining companion wants to make conversation, but they’re also assessing your ability to spend.
During a meal at Noz, I managed to learn, without asking, that everyone in the room had dined at Masa. Letting folks know you can spend $1,200 on dinner is a flex in a way that Jean-Georges will never be. It is the sushi equivalent of casually peppering your conversation with asides about your days at Harvard. It’s the type of behavior that, on occasion, can make an everyday sushi lover wish they were anywhere but at a sushi bar. And that’s too bad.
Ryan Sutton is Eater NY’s chief critic.