Imagine an airline booking site that didn’t list any fares. Instead, it would only disclose and collect fees after boarding. Or pretend that theatergoers reserved Hamilton seats without knowing the cost; ushers would present a bill halfway through the show. Those were the scenarios I contemplated during a recent trip to the Grill, which doesn’t list prices online.
As someone who eats out for a living, I don’t get surprised too often — especially not at an expensive Midtown power spot — but I almost fell off my bar stool when I learned that a crawfish sausage appetizer, good for six bites, would cost $44, more than a full steak frites elsewhere.
The Grill’s owner, Major Food Group, has long obscured its pricing, but they’re not the only ones. The sausage incident reminded me of when I dropped by the French-Indonesian Wayan, a venue where most dishes are under $35, and realized that a new menu item I scoped out on the website would run nearly $140 for two. Or there were also those visits I made to the new Milos at Hudson Yards, where price-less menus (among other tricks) can easily send a meal $100 over budget.
Other expensive new restaurants omitting online prices include Hyun, the upscale Korean barbecue establishment specializing in wagyu, and Llama San, the ambitious Peruvian-Japanese hangout that doesn’t even post a menu. Looking back further: Ambitious Italian hotspots Misi and Lilia and spendy Mexican establishments Atla and Cosme also suffer from price-free menus.
In an era of online everything, where restaurants detail every new dish and development on social media, it’s astonishing that the number of venues without prices on their websites continues to increase. I can’t think of another legal business — outside of the U.S. healthcare system — where the consumer doesn’t have a specific idea of what they’ll spend until they arrive. Logistically the policy doesn’t make sense; a restaurant that can afford to print out paper menus can afford to update menus with prices online.
This seems like an easy thing to do to make a diner feel more equipped to go to the restaurant. Hiding the cost prevents consumers from engaging in any type of informed planning, something that’s particularly important for upscale venues such as these where people may be saving up for a splurge meal. It also makes it harder to watch for price hikes, like at Cosme, where the duck carnitas has jumped up from $45 to nearly $98 since 2014, and for comparing prices with competitors.
Prices, to be sure, might not be the central concern for someone choosing between a meal at, say, the old world Peter Luger and the more modern Cut by Wolfgang Puck, but it would be nice to ascertain the prices at either without having to call up. For what it’s worth, the porterhouse is $150 at Cut, while at Luger the steak is...actually the receptionists aren’t picking up over there. Sorry!
Or for tourists who aren’t plugged into the city’s posh pastrami scene, Katz’s would be well served to mention that the overstuffed sandwich runs $24.98 after tax, which might induce a case of sticker shock for folks who aren’t accustomed to the city’s high-priced sandwiches.
Sometimes prices are not entirely obscured, instead sneakily hidden. Take the Fulton in the Seaport District. Anyone who reads the online menus won’t encounter prices next to the lobster noodles or the whole sea bass — at least not at first. Only those who scroll down and download a separate PDF will learn that the noodles are $58 and that the sea bass is, well, it’s listed as MP, or market price.
Other restaurants, which shall remain nameless because I’ve already knocked them multiple times in this column, have actively removed prices from their websites, suggesting a conscious effort to give the consumer less information than before.
Numbers and budgeting aside, menu pricing impacts the emotional experience of dining out. The sensation of sitting down at a nice restaurant, opening the menu, and exclaiming, “holy crap,” can be a deeply demoralizing experience. Spending $100 or $200 more than you budgeted for is like getting a ticket for a law you didn’t know existed. Or just as embarrassing is having to order only an appetizer or two and skimp on wine, turning what would have been a special occasion into an ad hoc effort in limiting the financial damage.
At least Major Food Group, the largest collection of restaurants with this nonsense policy, is making a change. When I reached out to co-owner Jeff Zalaznick about the nature of my piece, he said he agreed with my concerns and said the group would finally start publishing prices online by the end of the month. (It’s worth nothing that this site, and our slew of commenters, have criticized this aspect about MFG in the past). The group runs 12 venues in New York, two in Vegas, two in Tel Aviv, and one in Hong Kong. Only one, the Polynesian, has online menu prices.
Indeed, for the following collection of coveted venues, adding prices would do something simple that they claim they want to do: be more hospitable.
List of Restaurants Withouts Online Menu Prices
- Every Major Food Group Restaurant (Dirty French, the Grill, Carbone, etc.)
- Peter Luger
- The Fulton
- P.J. Clarke’s
- Llama San
- Cut by Wolfgang Puck