Those who claim Bay Area fine dining is becoming increasingly inaccessible to middle class gastronomes will soon have another argument at their disposal: The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, one of the country’s best and most expensive culinary establishments, has raised the price of its most prestigious offering by $100. It has also adopted pre-paid dining.
A trip to the kitchen counter, where this critic had one of the best meals of his life, and where Eater’s Bill Addison also ate quite well, now runs $600 per person. That means dinner for two, before a single drop of Champagne, but after tax, will cost $1,300, which is precisely how much I paid for my nice midcentury couch, with shipping. Add on wine pairings and you’re at $2,000. That’s about the price of two unlocked iPhone 7 devices from Apple – with the supplemental warranty. And honestly if you remember just one thing from this column, let it be this: Get the extended warranty (I just cracked my phone).
The hike occurred in January as Meadowood switched all of its reservations from OpenTable to Tock; diners are now expected to pay in advance, sometimes months in advance, just like with concert ticket. Prepayment is also required for the regular dining room menu, which remains at $330.
Why Switch to Ticketing?
Chef Christopher Kostow tells Eater he adopted Tock because it allowed for better guest relations, arguing that confirmation calls, unnecessary with prepaid dining, constituted “intrusive hospitality.” I could think of a few diners who’d prefer a phone call a day out to paying $1,200 ahead of time.
Kostow says it’s still too early to get a real sense of whether traffic has meaningfully changed since adopting Tock, but so far, he says it’s business at usual at the restaurant, adding that he doesn’t believe guests “balk at the idea of paying up front.”
Meadowood is one of a growing number of high profile U.S. establishments to switch to prepayments, which shifts the financial burden of a cancellation or no show from the restaurant to the guest. In the Bay Area alone, Tock is the only way you can dine at Single Thread in Healdsburg or Lazy Bear in San Francisco; Atelier Crenn, in turn, will switch over in April.
But things are a touch more expensive at Meadowood. In fact I can’t think of another U.S. restaurant where a non-private dining party is expected to put up over a thousand dollars, before wine, up to three months in advance of dining, and risk losing it all if something goes awry.
That risk to the diner at Meadowood is exacerbated now that the price has risen even further toward the stratosphere.
So Why Charge More?
Restaurants across the country, of course, regularly raise their prices to offset rising food, real estate, and labor costs (San Francisco’s minimum wage will rise to $15 in just over a year). Many establishments, like Corey Lee’s Benu or Atelier Crenn, do this gradually, so as not to scare off the consumer, with, well, scary prices. Meadowood, by contrast, prefers to do things in one fell swoop: the price of the four-seat kitchen counter has remained at $500 since its debut in 2012.
Yes, that’s a major hike, but it isn’t out of line for the larger Bay Area, flush with tech money and one of the country’s highest costs of living. Benu, which charged $180 for its tasting five years ago, crept up to $285 by the end of last year. And Saison, where this critic enjoyed a fantastic meal for $248 in 2013, now asks $398.
Restaurants don’t typically publicize these changes. In fact the casual observer might even assume, at first glance, that the price hasn’t changed at all at Meadowood’s Chef’s counter. The menu, on the Tock booking site, is still listed at $500. But after you click through to purchase, and add on wine pairings, you realize that the menu price itself no longer inclusive of service, like at The French Laundry. Instead, a 20 percent fee is now levied, bringing the tasting up to $600.
Under any other circumstance we’d call this a shady move, but because diners know precisely how much they’ll spend before they hit buy on Tock, Meadowood gets a thumbs up from The Price Hike Police.
Still, the question remains: why does one of the country’s most expensive menus cost even more? Kostow attributes the kitchen counter hike to the rising cost of goods (“even at our price, we struggle to keep food costs where they need to be.”), the rising cost of labor, as well as – and this is not something restaurants typically admit – “rising demand for those seats...it’s valuable real estate experientially.”
Kostow says guests dine at the counter about 99 percent of evenings. Indeed, it is booked up for parties of two on Saturday nights throughout the entire month of March – and part of April!
Those who’d like to lodge at Meadowood after dinner can expect to drop $2,500 or more for two nights.