Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park, the culinary palace that famously went vegan last year — and that received a few tough reviews for the quality of the new menu — suddenly announced another big change earlier this month. The restaurant said in an email titled “When Everyone Is Supported, Everyone Succeeds,” that it would no longer be a service-included establishment starting on February 3rd, and that patrons would have the “option” of leaving a gratuity.
Let me plainly translate that jargon: Eleven Madison Park is effectively having customers shell out a lot more for the nightly tasting by bringing back tipping. Adding the customary 20 percent adds a serious chunk of change to a bill that can already hit $1,100 for two.
This is what we call, in the precise language of Suttonomics, a Stealth Hike. And it’s not the first time this has happened; the now-closed Ichimura and other venues have played this game as well, reinstituting tipping without lowering prices — or without being as transparent as possible about the changes.
Eater NY first reported the news, detailing how EMP wanted to offer more competitive wages to its staffers, even as tipping, as a larger practice, continues to evidence signs of sexism and racism, and even as restaurants like Dirt Candy, Love, Nelly, and certain sushi spots thrive with service-included policies.
EMP’s menu had remained at $335 for quite a few years already, so tweaking prices up a bit isn’t necessarily unexpected. Indeed, restaurants across the city have been raising prices as a tight labor market and supply chain issues push up the cost of business. The slightly more eyebrow raising part is the fact that the three Michelin-starred restaurant’s return to tipping translates into one of the steepest local price hikes in years.
What’s even more incredible is that the base price of dinner still appears exactly the same on the bookings site. Unless you drill down to the middle of the “frequently asked questions” link — a document that’s about as compelling as those airline safety manuals located in the seat pocket in front of you — you probably won’t realize that service is no longer included until after you’ve made your non-refundable, prepaid reservation.
So to clear things up, let’s take a look at how much you’ll pay for an Eleven Madison starting the first week of February.
The current price of dinner — the same price as during my September review — is $335, or $729 after tax for two. When the tipping policy returns, that same meal, if you leave a 20 percent gratuity, will clock in at $863. That’s over $130 more than the current price, before wine. Add optional pairings at $175 apiece, and dinner is now roughly $1,314, over $200 more than previously.
Again, Eleven Madison isn’t the first restaurant where patrons have ended up paying more after a no-tipping policy was dropped. The now-closed Ichimura, a regal sushi spot on the Lower East Side, announced on its website one day that the $300 meal no longer included gratuity, meaning dinner was suddenly $60 more per person. Aska made the switch as well, but did so a bit more elegantly. The modern Nordic restaurant in Williamsburg used to be service-included, until this past fall, when it started levying an 18 percent service charge on its $295 menu. Yes, that still makes for a much more expensive meal, but at least the charge is clearly stated on your bill while making the prepaid reservation, so there’s never any confusion as to the true cost.
It’s easy to be dismissive of price hikes at the city’s most expensive restaurants. One could argue that if you can afford a $1,100 meal, a $1,300 meal isn’t going to send you into credit card debt. But consider this: Eleven Madison isn’t an eight seat omakase parlor that caters to a small set of patrons. It is a globally renowned establishment, once the so-called “World’s Best Restaurant,” a venue that draws in gourmands who save up and travel across oceans to eat here, the way one might fly to Paris to visit the Louvre.
If you’re coming in from out of town, and were hoping to do one super expensive meal at EMP, and one more affordable meal, at, say, Sushi on Me, the Stealth Hike at Eleven Madison literally just ate up the budget for your entire second meal.
Even though we’re all going to be paying more for dinner in the months and years to come, it’s nice to have a clearer picture on what those prices will be. Let the record state, however, that after reading this fall’s reviews of EMP and after learning that the price of a fully-loaded dinner date shot up by $200, I’d be hard pressed to say, “Yeah, that sounds like something I’d be interested in.”
That aside, here’s a little proposal: If your revenue-rich restaurant is explicit about how reservations are non-refundable on the bookings site, even going so far as to say that you can’t get your money back in the event of a travel restriction, maybe you can use that forum to state more clearly how a service-included policy is going away — for those who don’t subscribe to the newsletter. Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning how tipping is not just “optional,” but customary at 20 percent, so folks can price out their more expensive meal, so international patrons know how much to leave, and so that the high-minded establishment can signal to staffers that they’re really, truly, looking out for them.