If you’ve been paying attention to the offerings at many of San Francisco’s finest restaurants, you might have noticed a trend: shorter, less expensive tasting menus. In the past six months, they’ve sprouted up at many of the city’s high-end restaurants in response to price-conscious diners with inflation-lightened pocketbooks. The ranks of paired down menus include chef Kim Alter’s Nightbird, which recently introduced an $85 snack tasting menu that’s available only at the bar; one-Michelin-starred Sorrel, which now offers a $98 four-course menu on limited nights; and SoMa’s Michelin-starred Birdsong, which brought back its Discovery Experience — priced at $225 instead of the restaurant’s usual $295 — in April.
For the past few months, chef David Yoshimura’s one-Michelin-starred Nisei followed suit, offering both its full tasting menu for $232 and an abbreviated Essentials menu for $130. The full menu includes about 13 courses, plus an array of small bites and a take-home of matcha and soy milk to enjoy the next day. The Essentials menu cut that experience, approximately, in half. And it was a hit. Within a month or so of launch, Yoshimura estimates about half the restaurant’s customers were choosing the shorter, cheaper experience.
But as of this week, that option no longer exists.
“It was a good experiment,” Yoshimura says. “But, for me, it was not as gratifying because, selfishly, I want people to experience the full Nisei menu.”
“That’s why I do this whole cheffing thing,” he adds with a smile.
But instead of simply scraping the shorter menu, Yoshimura says he wanted to find a way to continue drawing in the new customers who’d been attracted to the lower-priced menu, while also preserving the integrity of his vision. He’d noticed many of the diners opting for the Essentials menu hadn’t heard of Nisei before making their reservations; they were finding the restaurant through a reservation platform instead of seeking it out specifically. Many were also coming in to celebrate a special occasion — but weren’t necessarily accustomed to spending several hundred dollars on a fine dining meal. But if attracting new diners was a mostly, good thing, sometimes the restaurant would get feedback that diners were left hungry by the shorter experience. When coupled with the fact that Yoshimura didn’t feel like the abbreviated menu fully reflected the restaurant's vision, it felt a little bit like a lose-lose situation.
So, he decided to meet customers in the middle. Today the full, 13-course Nisei menu costs $193, about halfway between the previous price of $295 and the Essentials menu price of $130. By lowering the cost of the tasting menu without cutting any of the courses or stripping out any of the premium ingredients, Yoshimura hopes he’ll be able to maintain the same number of covers the restaurant was doing between the two price tiers, which would, hypothetically, also keep revenue at about the same level.
If you ask the chef how, exactly, he’s able to slash the price of his primary product despite the impacts of inflation while also turning a profit, he’s got a pretty straightforward answer.
“I’m not,” he says. “Basically, it’s the lowest I can go while breaking even.”
Yoshimura says the idea is to maintain or, ideally, increase the number of customers in the dining room and to keep prices for beverage pairings ($135) and supplements the same. Beverage sales have always been more important to restaurant profits than food sales, so on the whole, the chef is optimistic this new tasting menu price point could be a win for both the kitchen and diners.
For his part, he’s excited to continue evolving the menu; whereas when he opened Nisei in April 2021, he focused on homestyle Japanese washoku cuisine, he says two years and one Michelin star later, he feels empowered to push the menu further into what he thinks modern Japanese California cuisine can be. For example, the current menu includes a dish of kombu-cured hirame paired with several preparations of California-grown strawberries. It’s a “polarizing” dish, Yoshimura says — some diners balk at the combination of fruit and fish — but it exemplifies how he’s thinking about using Japanese preparations and techniques on Northern California ingredients.
Yoshimura says he understands why diners seem more discerning about how they spend their dollars right now; the Bay Area continues to be one of the most expensive places to live in the country. But after years of lockdowns and limited access to dining out, there’s still interest in having a restaurant experience — if you can make it the right price.
“I think the desire to go out is still here,” he says. “Ultimately, you just have to look at the price.”