The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Foodie Rant - Show Me the Money!

By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 4, 2010 6:20PM

Menu1.jpg Last Friday, I was sitting at my desk trying to answer a deeply important question: Where should I eat dinner? As usual, I had a long list of restaurants on my to-do list, and I was going through them online, seeing which had reservations and examining all the menus. I must admit, my budget was feeling a little bit tight, so I was paying particular attention to price - I was looking for an inexpensive evening. To my great irritation, I found that a surprising number of online menus had no prices at all!

It is understandable that a restaurant would want to remain flexible. For instance, what if the price of a dish has to change because an ingredient increases in price, or the demand shoots through the roof? No one wants to be in the awkward position of arguing over it - "That wasn't the price on the website!" However, without noting any prices, the restaurant sends a different message - "If you have to ask, don't even bother coming in." Would you buy a lawnmower or an iPod without a price tag? Well, some of these dinners can cost just as much.

Menus lacking prices (as you can see on the right) used to be relatively common. Waiters totaled up your dishes at the end of the meal, and you paid accordingly. More often, the host of the party (or the man of the house) would be given a priced menu, while others would not. This would prevent any guests from feeling uncomfortable about what their dinners were costing the host. I've never encountered this in the United States, though it still happens in France and England. Around these parts, it seems, hosts are selfishly eager to brag about exactly how much that bottle of Cristal is costing them.

These days, there is no excuse for veiling prices. It is almost impossible for a restaurant to give diners menus without prices, but there are still lots of tricks out there. Menus often have "Market Price" on the menu, forcing customers to ask or order blind. Often, I've gotten cocktail menus completely devoid of prices. Presumably, the restaurant thinks that after a few drinks, you won't care much about the prices, but woe is the sticker shock when you find out those drinks were $15 each. Similarly, waiters engaged in the "waiter monologue" often don't cite any prices on specials. If you find the special particularly enticing, you order it price-unknown, often to find out that the special ingredient you found so appealing is not-so-appealingly priced. All of these tactics depend on the likely possibility that most people won't ask - that it is seen as cheap or shameful to ask about the cost of something. Once again, so the reasoning goes, if you really belonged there, you wouldn't need to worry about it.

In our opinion, prices should be everywhere. Costs should be transparent and clear, and set to avoid confusion. If a restaurant has specials or market prices, they should print up a special flier and give it out with the menu. Cocktail menus should be priced, and online menus should have prices. Diners have a right to know what they're getting into.