The world of fine dining is an alluring one, usually employing complicated cooking techniques and luxury ingredients, as chefs turn out beautifully plated dishes worth savoring. The Bay Area is fortunate to be home to a number of Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-recognized restaurants and chefs, but dining at one of these acclaimed establishments typically comes with a high cost of entry that can set diners back $200 or more per person — a price that the average, budget-minded diner can’t reasonably afford on a regular basis. Plus, these luxury experiences tend to run for hours, stretching a meal into an evening-long, multi-course marathon event even at the most well-paced restaurants.
But in the Bay Area, it seems there’s a sea change happening: A number of fine dining restaurants are adding shorter, lower-priced tasting menus that may open the door to the world of upscale dining for new customers. Restaurants including two Michelin-star Commis, two-Michelin-star Birdsong, one Michelin-star Bar Crenn, one Michelin-star Sorrel, and one Michelin-star Mister Jiu’s have all recently rolled out tasting menus at lower prices, veering into more affordable territory, and shortening these long meals into more manageable lengths. At Bar Crenn, for instance, the Le Comptoir experience encompasses a six-course selection of “spontaneously curated dishes” that clocks in at $300 per person. The newly added Bar Crenn snack menu, meanwhile, offers “five luxurious and playful small bites, both savory and sweet” at the much lower price point of $125 — perhaps perfect for someone looking to tiptoe into sampling star chef Dominique Crenn’s food.
At Sorrel in San Francisco, in addition to an eight-course, two-and-a-half-hour experience priced at $185 per person, the team recently added a four-course tasting menu to the tune of $98 per person for a 90-minute meal. The catalyst for creating the shorter tasting menu, says director of operations Joel Wilkerson was the debut of Sorrel’s bar program last fall. In contrast to the restaurant, the eight-seat bar doesn’t require reservations and is proudly first come, first serve with a la carte menu and low-ABV cocktails. The response to the bar program was overwhelmingly positive, and Wilkerson says the team sought out more ways to “make people happy.” “The whole point was just to create accessibility around experiencing what we do here,” Wilkerson says, “without the commitment of having to be here for three or three-plus hours on a Wednesday night.”
In talking about the new four-course menu, Wilkerson pointed to the pandemic as a learning opportunity for the Sorrel group; having gone through a lot with COVID, he says the team had to look closer at their product and their customer. “I think restaurants are, at their core, evolving and changing things,” Wilkerson says. “And to run a restaurant means that you need to be nimble, and you need to be able to pivot and change.” Part of that is recognizing the dining scene can be restrictive. Another reason for the new menu, he says, is to get the city moving again and engage residents in activity — including by giving them reasons to get out and, perhaps, try a new restaurant. “It’s really about getting people on the sidewalks,” he says, “walking into restaurants and making San Francisco feel alive again.”
Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown has offered an a la carte menu since its debut seven years ago, but the restaurant more recently switched to a five-course tasting menu priced at $115 per person (with the option to add on larger and more expensive items like the popular Liberty Farms whole-roasted duck). For chef Brandon Jew, the new tasting menu offered a fresh opportunity. In practice, it afforded his team the chance to prepare and execute more detailed dishes, such as a delicately folded giant dumpling added to the new seasonal menu. The change also saw more practical outcomes: for example, less food waste, given that diners make all of their food selections ahead of time when making reservations. For Jew, the updates just make sense. “I feel like this is a way for me to have this restaurant last potentially longer,” he says. “For me, that was more important.”
Whatever the reasoning behind these new, more affordable, and typically short menus, it seems Bay Area diners are responding positively to the changes. Wilkerson says regulars contacted Sorrel to express enthusiasm for a shorter, more inexpensive tasting menu at the high quality they’ve come to expect from the restaurant. “It’s a stepping stone, right? It’s for people to get their feet wet,” Wilkerson says. “Sometimes it’s your anniversary, do you want to spend all the money that you have in your savings account to go to dinner? Sometimes you want to experience something different or something new and maybe you haven’t been to a Michelin star restaurant before — this is an access point for those nights where maybe you do want to splurge and be confident about it.”