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The other night my wife and I and another couple were dining at an Italian restaurant we’d never been to before; one of those “We have to try that place sometime” places. The food was uninspiring, overpriced and under-portioned. Between the four of us we consumed five glasses of the house wine, equally uninspiring but expectable from the house wine. What I didn’t expect was the price. When the check arrived, the mundane house wine was $10 a glass. I think that’s a little pricey for the swill du jour at a restaurant of median status. Of course none of us asked beforehand what the house wine cost. Customers are usually inclined to know the price of countless goods and services before buying them. But interestingly, this tendency seems to wane in restaurants, especially when dining with others. Why? Because we don’t want to look cheap or petty. Yet nobody would accuse us of being stingy if we queried the price of a shirt, a block of cheddar, a cigar, a bottle of facial cream, or innumerable other items prior to purchase.
Once again, somehow, someway, our culture has insidiously instituted a unique set of codes for the formal dining domain. One could walk into a liquor store with their dining guests in tow and ask the price of a bottle of wine for dinner without incident. But inquire the cost of the house wine at the table and eyebrows are raised. People begin thinking, (or at least people think that others are thinking), that the price-prober is miserly or committing some kind of faux pas by asking the price of such things at the table. After all, if you can’t afford a few extra dollars here or there then you shouldn’t be eating out in the first place right? Aha! That’s exactly the thinking I’m talking about. And more specifically, why does that demon voice tend to rear itself more in the restaurant than the supermarket, the department store, or the salon? What is it about sitting at a dining table with mixed company that raises our anxieties about others’ impressions of us? The answer lies in the unique interplay of human psychology and the social context.
Humans are vain, self-conscious, approval-seeking, and socially competitive. Dining out showcases our lives, personalities, achievements, knowledge of social graces, financial successes, or lack thereof. We don’t like to admit it but down deep we’re very concerned about appearances and others’ judgments of us. Thus, a few dollars up or down in the price of a glass of wine is not enough to overcome the angst that asking the price engenders.
We order it with feigned impunity and send a message to our dinner guests that we are beyond such trivialities; that we are financially secure enough to be indifferent to the cost. Then on the way home in the car with our spouse we balk at the outrageous price.
Whether it’s intentional or not, restaurants capitalize on this state of affairs. Think of the times you’ve patronized restaurants with no prices on the “specials” menu. Or the specials are verbally described by the server without revealing the price. Or the wine lists that notate prices for the bottles but not the wines by the glass or house wines. C’mon, the restaurant owner knows that many people are just going to order without inquiry. It’s not like you’ll have a glass of wine with your meal if it’s $8 a glass but not if it’s $9. Can you imagine the horror of being on a date, entertaining an important client, or meeting your in-laws for the first time and making an issue about the price of the house wine? And that’s how they got you by the…..….well you know. They know you’re not going to ask. Then the bill arrives and you are resoundingly introduced to the concept of sticker shock. Now you know why the server went into captivating detail about how the loin of lamb special is prepared, but somehow failed to mention the price. Oh and don’t forget to add sales tax and tip to that overpriced special or house wine. They don’t call it sticker “shock” for nothing.
So where does all this leave us? Well, most people simply accept the fact that dining out is not like shopping for a shirt. You’re going to spend a few extra dollars here or there and the point of the evening is inevitably more important in the grand scheme of your life than its cost. Moreover, as stated, social pressures discourage financial nit-picking at the mixed company dining table. I too have fallen prey to its influence on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, I still don’t like being held emotionally hostage. In order for me to enact some prudence over my dining expenditures I must face the anxieties that such behavior can initiate. And I don’t like the fact that restaurateurs are savvy to that on some level and take advantage of it by being arcane with their prices.
In a final irony, during another recent dinner with just my wife, (no judgmental friends, relatives or clients in sight), the waiter described the specials, (and the desserts for that matter), sans prices. I queried the price of the one special, a rib-eye steak. He seemed momentarily flustered, briefly shook his head and uttered: “I think it’s $28.” Did he really not know the price and if not, why not? Nevertheless I ordered my steak and when the bill arrived it was $32. Now yes I could have been even more proactive and pointed out the price difference but the food and service was beyond reproach so I let it go. The point is, even engaging them in the guess the price game did not prevent the inevitable sticker shock. Some days you get the bear and some days it gets you.