One of the most striking things about our current inflationary era is witnessing how restaurants are taking very different approaches to passing along their skyrocketing costs to consumers. Everyday spots generally try to keep price increases reasonable — for fear of alienating cash-strapped patrons — while fancier venues might have the flexibility of hiking tasting menu prices more substantially. The latter scenario can be quite eye-opening: Some of the city’s most expensive seafood temples currently benefit from such wild demand that they’re sometimes pushing up prices by hundreds of dollars in one fell swoop. And they’re still booking up.
Sushi Noda, which raised its price to $315 upon reopening this winter, is making things a bit tougher for diners again; it’s bumping up the menu to $365 in May. Because reservations are for two or more, dinner effectively starts at just under $1,000 after tax and gratuity. The Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, once one of the city’s most affordable seafood tasting menu spots, is also jumping up, by $35 to $430. That works out to over $1,100 for two after tax and tip. Wine is extra.
And then there’s Sushi Noz. Starting next month, the heralded Upper East Side venue will eliminate its $230 menu, which was a nice alternative to the $400 tasting served in a separate and more formal room. The tiny restaurant will now serve a single menu of small plates and nigiri throughout the space, and it will hike the price of its menu by about $100 to $495, service included.
For context: Dinner for two at Noz previously started at $500, now it runs more than double at $1,077.
Joshua Foulquier, one of the owners at Noz, said the cheaper tasting was originally intended as an “accessible” entrypoint into the restaurant, but that the lines between the two menus had been blurring, adding that expectations among patrons were equally high regardless of which offering they chose.
“If we’re capable of delivering the top level experience across the board, why hold ourselves back from offering that menu in both rooms? At this point, the lower [$230] price has essentially become an obstacle for us in achieving that goal,” he wrote, while noting that the 14-seat restaurant now has a staff of 35, up from six upon opening four years ago.
Restaurant food price inflation, up a whopping 6.8 percent nationwide over the past year, is thrusting up the price of eating out across the city. Not everything rises by the same percentage, of course, as inflation impacts individual items (and restaurants) in different ways. Claudy’s Kitchen, an acclaimed Peruvian spots in the Bronx, has managed to keep empanada prices stable, but the owners have increased rotisserie prices by at least a dollar as the cost of chicken shoots up by 15 percent or so. Evelia’s Tamales in Brooklyn, by contrast, hiked the price of most tamales by 50 cents, a decision that the owners say has cost the venue a chunk of business.
Sushi restaurants that import their seafood from Japan a few times a week are sometimes dealing with even steeper cost increases. Noz’s Foulquier says his freight costs have more than doubled, and Noda’s general manager Philip Dizard also cites air shipping costs as a chief factor in bumping up the price of dinner.
Restaurants across the spectrum, whether cheap or more upscale, often try to absorb at least some of their rising costs, especially when they know their customers, who might depend on them for daily nourishment, don’t have a lot of financial wiggle room. That 50 percent price hike by Evelia’s, for example, was its first increase in roughly 20 years.
Omakase sushi spots and venues like Brooklyn Fare, by contrast, are special occasion restaurants — no one really orders a tasting menu seven days a week — and the well-heeled clientele generally have the means to afford the $1,000 price tags. Noz, on that front, is already nearly sold out for parties of two at the new price. Noda only releases reservations a week at a time, but they were snapped up within days of the new price going live last Sunday. And Masa, which raised the price of a seat at the chef’s counter by $300 to $950 in less than a year, has only limited seating (or none at all) for many nights in April.
This all means that a class of diners who like to save and splurge for a top tier omakase will likely find themselves increasingly priced out. Historically speaking, fancy New York restaurants have employed dual-menu formats to be more accessible to more patrons; one thinks of the lower-priced menus at the Eleven Madison Park bar, the Per Se salon, or the Gramercy Tavern front room. The city’s booming omakase scene, however, tends to be made up of small restaurants serving single tasting menus, a reality that’s all the more true now that Noz has moved to drop its cheaper offering.
Foulquier also runs a newly-opened Chelsea sushi spot, and while that venue’s pricing is technically lower than Noz’s, it’s still extraordinarily expensive, with the 25-30 course menu running $400. The owner added, however, that he plans on reopening his renovated “market” on the Upper East Side this fall, where patrons will be able to enjoy a more reasonably priced omakase at a new sushi counter, or even order a la carte.
“’Restaurant Industry Spark Notes’” might suggest these upper limits [on pricing] are simply driven by greed,” Foulquier went on via email. “And certainly it can be motivated by that in some instances, but I would say in most cases it’s the same as it is for Chef Noz: an obsessive impulse to do whatever it takes to be the best.” Patrons can still make a reservation for Noz’s $230 menu until the end of April; there is limited availability.