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October 1, 2009

Creeping appetizer prices



I'm noticing appetizer price creep lately.

Awhile back some people started ordering two appetizers rather than an entree, either because they wanted less food or they wanted to spend less money.

The tapas craze made this not only OK, but a cool, trendy thing to do.

Now appetizers are just as likely to be called "small plates" and cost more in relation to the entrees. ...


I think it's been getting worse recently, but I could be wrong. It always startles me to see $14 appetizers on the same menu as $20 entrees, as I did recently at the Blue Hill Tavern in Brewers Hill. Here, at least, they are called "appetizers" but are quite substantial.

It reminds me of what happened when customers stopped drinking a mixed drink or two before ordering dinner. Dessert prices got higher in relation to the rest of the meal because restaurants were selling less alcohol. (That's a totally unscientific observation of cause and effect, just my personal opinion.)

(Kenneth K. Lam/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 2:57 PM | | Comments (6)


Some seem to forget that these dining and gastronomic experiences everyone is so enthusiastic to relate and obsess over are a thinly veiled shield hiding (gasp!) a business.

These businesses require volume and profit from that volume which shall be achieved one way or another or... well, that's another too common theme of threads; isn't it?

You're absolutely right, but it's interesting to track how it happens and changes over time, isn't it?EL

I have also noticed this trend but it doesn't bother me because often the appetizers at the better restaurants are better than the main courses. They often seem more creative and perhaps change more often. On the other hand I think some of this may be happening because of people like me who go into places like Salt, Cinghiale and Bistro Blanc and order several appetizers and no entree. I'm sure this isn't good for their bottom line and they've had to adjust.

Frankly, I think if fine dining restaurants want to increase profit they should adjust their wine prices to clear their stock of the bottle that sit for months or years turning no profit in the hope that someone will come in and be stupid enough to pay three times what the wine is worth.

I have to admit, I've noted it as well. I used to get a couple of appetizers instead of an entree but now it's the same price if not more expensive to do that.

Soup is creeping up in price too! 2 bowls of soup and 2 iced teas can add $15 or more to the bill!

Just because a business does something, such as charge higher for appetizers, doesn't mean it's a good business decision.

I would assume appetizers are fairly elastic - price sensitive. At what point will the higher prices result in lower profits?

I'm not sure what it is, and it would probably vary with a host of variables.

What I do know is that I and my wife almost always order two appetizers in addition to two entrees. If the appetizer cost went up to $15 or $30 for two, I would probably find myself on many occasions not ordering any appetizers. I wouldn't go to just ordering one appetizer. The loss of value would have a greater impact on my decision than just a higher unit cost. From a budget standpoint I could still afford 1 appetizer at $15, but I wouldn't value that one appetizer at $15.

We have sometimes made a meal from appetizers and we have been doing this for years (hey--we're trendy!--who knew?) But RoCK, we do sometimes order just one appetizer and split it. It all depends on what looks good and how hungry we are. We seldom order dessert, but if we do it's most likely to be "one for the table," whether there are two of us or 6.

Here's a little insight on this trend:

Appetizers (for the most part) are better sellers than entrees. Poeple love apps because they get to taste a couple different things at a place and not be full. As Cartman said: "Appetizers are what you eat before the meal to make you hungrier." Purveyors know this and charge accordingly for appetizer-related ingredients. For example, it costs more to make a plate of wings than it does a burger. It costs more to make a crock of crab dip than it does to grill a chicken breast or piece of red snapper. Even the price of edamame is pretty high because restaurants that have it (usually asian) sell a ton of it. A smart restaurant operator will not overcharge for any item, so if you see it specifically with apps, then it's usually because of a high food cost for those items.

Some places (usually chains) do overcharge for apps, though. Where I get offended is when I see something like a quesadilla or giant fried onion for $9 when I know there's no more than .75 in product on the plate. That's just gouging, pure and simple. If the item is labor intensive then I will let it slide, but usually that is not the case.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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