America’s 25 most expensive restaurants

What recession? Bundle just released a list of the 25 most expensive restaurants in America, and you’d never know the economy was still faltering. Your average diner would definitely require a stimulus package to pay the check.

Topping the list is The French Laundry, located in Yountville, in the Napa Valley. Chef/owner Thomas Keller’s three-star Michelin restaurant is ranked among the world’s best (as is Per Se, his New York outpost). An average check is $957 per visit, while Per Se bats $883. Also in the top five: Michael Mina (San Francisco), at $844; Alinea (Chicago), at $736, and Charlie Trotter’s (Chicago), at $666 (ironic, given Trotter’s reputation as…difficult).

To determine the list, Bundle examined spending data, then looked at average check sizes based upon millions of transactions in restaurants nationwide. Interestingly, the most expensive restaurants fell into two categories: French, and Contemporary American. But Robert’s Steakhouse in the Executive Penthouse Club (New York) and Mario Batali-co-owned Del Posto (Italian) also made the list.

So what does a $957 dollar meal taste like? Well, it damn well better be flawless–service included–but there’s a reason these chef/restaurateurs are at the top of their game. Prix fixe menus are a big reason tabs are so high. At Per Se, you’ll pay up to $295 a pop, while at Le Bernadin (New York, ranked 14th) it’s $330 with a wine pairing.

As a food writer, I admire the hell out of these guys for their talent as both chefs and businessmen. That said, I don’t think any meal on earth is worth nearly a grand, especially when said chefs generally aren’t the ones doing the cooking. It’s their hard-working, usually underpaid staff who do the heavy lifting, which is one of the great inequities of the restaurant business. I take issue when the people doing the cooking, serving, bussing, dishwashing, and cleaning don’t have the luxury of eating at their place of employment.

[Editor’s note: Bundle’s data take only take the average price per check per restaurant in their calculations, meaning some abnormalities may result from particularly large or small restaurants. They also don’t appear to include every possible, most expensive restaurant in the country. Please bear the limits of this data in mind — and try to have a good dinner]

Pop-up restaurants: dining for a new decade

pop-up restaurantsFirst, it was underground supper clubs. Now, everything’s coming up pop-ups. As with food trucks, this form of guerrilla cheffing borne of economic need has become a global phenomenon. Equal parts dinner party and dinner theater, a pop-up refers to a dining establishment that is open anywhere from one to several nights, usually in an existing restaurant or other commercial food establishment.

The impermanent nature of pop-ups means no real overhead or utilities, and little food cost and labor. They’re not enough to sustain chefs financially, but are instead a great way for them to make a name for themselves and draw some income in between (or during) gigs. Pop-ups also give chefs a chance to stretch themselves, stylistically or ethnically, although some prefer to let local ingredients shine. Most pop-ups give props to sustainability by sourcing product from local farms, which is part of what gives these fly-by-night operations such a wonderful sense of place.

I first heard about pop-ups while couch-surfing in San Francisco two years ago (my own pop-up form of survival after relocating back to the West Coast from Colorado). Chef Anthony Myint, the brainchild behind SF’s Mission Street Food pop-up, which started in 2008, was serving much-lauded, locally-sourced dinners Thursday nights, each time with the help of a guest chef. The food was unpredictable with regard to cuisine or style. The location? Lung Shan, a nondescript Chinese restaurant in the city’s vibrant Mission District (FYI, my favorite place for great, usually cheap, eats). I remember thinking at the time, “More, please.”pop-up restaurantsFast-forward 24 months, and while the pop-up is no more, the venture was so successful, Myint is now co-owner of San Francisco’s popular Commonwealth, as well as newly minted (har) chef at the forthcoming Mission Bowling Club. And Joshua Skenes of Saison, one of Food & Wine magazine’s newly crowned Best New Chefs, started the restaurant as a pop-up.

San Francisco has long been an incubator for innovative ideas involving food, so it’s no surprise pop-ups are, ah, popular there (click here for a recent round-up). Meanwhile, fellow 2011 Best New Chef Jason Franey, of Seattle’s Canlis, has also been getting in on the pop-up. In February, he cooked a one-night gig at “Hearth & Home,” held at one of the city’s Macrina Bakery locations (another tip: if you’re in town, visit Macrina in its own right. Four words: chocolate-orange pound cake).

The pop-up trend–which now applies to boutiques, galleries, clubs, coffee houses, and bars–has gone national. Los Angeles, San Diego, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Boston, Portland (Oregon), Miami: all popular for restaurant pop-ups. Oakland has seen phenomenal response to its Pop-up General Store, which features a twice-monthly gathering of food vendors held at a catering kitchen. Founded by former Chez Panisse Chef Christopher Lee and his former sous chef Saimin Nosrat (of Berkeley’s defunct Eccolo), the venue features all the deliciousness you would expect when a group of mostly former Chez Panisse cooks and food artisans get together and prepare things to eat.
pop-up restaurants
Pop-ups are even crossing the pond. The New York Times reports that, starting today, Singapore is sending some of its top chefs and a pop-up kitchen on a yearlong trip around the world, with nine stops planned in Moscow, Paris, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi, Sydney, and Dubai. Dubbed Singapore Takeout, the goal is to showcase the city’s eclectic, multi-ethnic cuisine. The kitchen is a converted 20-by-eight-foot shipping container. Also hitting the road is chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and Per Se. He’ll be featured in a ten-day pop-up at Harrods, London later this summer.

Tip: Due to the nature of pop-ups, the best way to find them is to Google the words, “pop-up restaurant, ____ (city).” You can also go to Pop up Restaurants for news. Get popping!

Five quick trip splurges to take with the Amazing Race’s million dollar win

Now that Victor and Tammy have discovered that they get along with each other quite nicely, AND they’ve won the million dollar prize on Amazing Race 14, they could pool their resources for some dandy vacations and have plenty of money left over for two houses and the stock market. This is the time to buy. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

Let’s say that Victor and Tammy only have a few days to squeeze in between their Amazing Race trip wins– considering that they came in first place five times and won trips for most of their Pit Stop triumphs. Just in case they are stumped about where else to go, I’ve thought of five places I’d head to in the U.S. if I were them. It doesn’t hurt to dream a little. Stay tuned for where I’d go in the world.

  • New York, New York: Spend three nights at the Plaza Hotel overlooking Fifth Avenue in New York City. For the summer, if you book two nights, the third is free. To add to the luxury, stay in the 2 Bedroom Suite with 5th Ave view Dining, 2 baths, butler service and a pantry. For the two nights that’ll be $7,000, not including tax and gratuity. Still that leaves a lot of moola for New York City fun.
  • Yountville, California: Dine at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, California. Ever since I read about Scott Haas’s experience dining here in his book Are We There Yet?, I’ve been salivating. Each day there are two new nine-course tasting menus. Haas spent more than $400.00 for his family of four. The tasting menu is $240 a person. Here’s today’s. Yum! Where to stay suggestion: Yountville Inn. There’s a Superior Room with two queen-size beds with breakfast included and complimentary wine tasting. Napa Valley would be a wonderful place for some R&R to celebrate a race.
  • Ogunquit, Maine: One of the first places I went on a solo adventure was Ogunquit. I didn’t stay, but visited a friend who was working there at a resort hotel. It was gorgeous. The Juniper Hill Inn is a beach front property within walking distance to the historic downtown and the Marginal Way, the path that leads to Perkins Cove. With a two-night stay you can get the Theater Package that includes two tickets to John Lane’s Ogunquit Playhouse, a summer theater outing. The most expensive rooms are less than $250 so there’s plenty of chump change for lobster and steamed clams to dip in butter. For the best of the best, MC Perkins Cove has a menu that’s sublime.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana: Whatever else Tammy & Victor decide to do in New Orleans, they need to eat breakfast at Brennan’s. I did that once, and it’s an experience not to forget. There are also many options for Creole style fine-dining, and a city that has a personality like no others. For slumber, my dreams point to a deluxe King room at The Avenue Garden Hotel in the Garden District. For $124 a night for a King bed Deluxe room, Tammy and Victor can certainly afford a room each.
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico: Friends of mine once said that said Santa Fe is the only place they’ve been that makes them feel like shopping. Seriously, this is probably the most aesthetically pleasing city in the U.S. My hands down favorite thing to do there besides linger at the Museum of International Folk Art is spend a couple hours at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese style spa and retreat center. La Fonda Hotel on the Plaza has a gorgeous restaurant, La Plazuela with superb eats. For luxury, the hotel has La Terreza rooms and suites on the top floor that includes a roof top patio. A suite is $595.