I just took a friend out to lunch and it cost me $45.
True, I was a little generous with the tip, partly because I did not have enough one-dollar bills. And, happily, 45 bucks is not going to break me so long as I don’t make a habit of it or ever do it again. Besides, $45 isn’t ridiculously out of line for lunch for two people.
Unless you’re eating fried chicken.
Fried chicken is not costly to make. The most expensive part is the chicken, which literally eats chicken feed. A good one, like this, is probably soaked in buttermilk, which isn’t costly. Then there is a dusting of flour, possibly an egg to get a crispier crust (and this crust was deliciously crispy), and more flour mixed with salt, pepper and possibly a dash of paprika. Then it goes into oil, which doesn’t cost much when bought in bulk, and which can be reused many, many times.
This particular restaurant, Old Standard, charges $12 for a boneless half-breast, thigh and leg, plus a single side dish. In contrast, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis charges $9.50 for all of that plus a wing, another side dish and some bread. At certain times of the week, Harold’s Chicken Shack in Chicago will give you two thighs and two legs, plus slaw, hot sauce and a slice of bread, for just $3.51.
Gus’s is the best fried chicken I’ve had in my life, and Harold’s is close to it. Their rent may be less than this local place, but the point is that you can get great fried chicken for considerably under $12.
In fact, $12 is just about the highest amount of money that they could possibly get away with charging for less than half a chicken. Had it been $13, I might have walked out.
I’m all for businesses doing well and entrepreneurs making money. The economy depends on it — we all depend on it. And restaurants have a rougher time than most other businesses. They are more subject to the whims of the public; for many reasons it is harder for them to deliver a consistent and predictable product, and as a result they are far more likely to close in their first few years. Any restaurant that succeeds is to be heartily congratulated and patronized.
But I have always had this odd and unpopular theory that goods have an inherent value. Half a fried chicken should cost about 8 bucks, maybe 10. A cheap seat at a baseball game ought to cost less than $20; an expensive seat should go for no more than $30 or $35. I realize that soaring salaries have made such pricing a thing of the past, but I also have a theory about what baseball players and management should be paid. And yes, it’s more than newspaper reporters, but not that much more.
I was in Chicago during a recent blizzard, and one of the few places that was open in the snowy late afternoon was Eataly, a veritable playground for people who are serious (or pretentious) about food. Though it is an Italian company, the Chicago franchise is owned by celebrity chef Mario Batali and celebrity restaurateur Joe Bastianich. I walked through it, not for the first time, with a mixture of awe at all the food they have and wonder at the prices they charge.
An ordinary set of four metal measuring cups was $46.80. An unexceptional wooden rolling pin was $34.80. A little less than 9 ounces of fancy-schmancy Italian butter cost $10.80, which works out to $19.59 a pound. Fancier-schmancier chocolate cost, I believe, $48.80 a pound. Granola — that’s granola — went for $8.20 for 12 ounces, which is nearly $11 a pound.
On the other hand, a 5-quart enameled cast-iron oval Dutch oven cost $159.80, which isn’t at all a bad price if it is well made. This one wasn’t well made. The enamel coating was so thin it was chipping off in at least five or six places. Plus, it was perhaps the ugliest shade of orange I have ever seen.
I left, also not for the first time, without buying a thing. Their idea of what they can get away with charging is considerably higher than mine.
At the fried-chicken restaurant, they proudly note that their chickens are organic and antibiotic-free and come from an Amish-owned farm in northern Indiana. The chickens are happy and treated well; one imagines they receive weekly massages and watch movies every Friday. The chicken certainly tasted as if it had led a life free from stress and full of luxury.
That must be why they charge $8 for six deviled eggs.