Home The Op-Eds The $36 Salad: An Exercise In Elitism?

The $36 Salad: An Exercise In Elitism?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I happened to see an article from the NYPost, part of which I’m going to paste below. If you don’t want to read it all, the important parts are in bold:

$55 -- Lobster-and-black-truffle salad at the Four Seasons;Credit: Johnathan Beskin

“It’s insanity!” says 28-year-old public relations consultant Erin Ward, who was recently on line at a Midtown salad bar. “You’re not paying for the food at that point. You’re paying for the name.”

Indeed, a salad with similar ingredients — diced chicken breast, bacon, blue cheese, hard-boiled egg, avocado, tomato and baby greens — from run-of-the-mill takeout joint Café Metro costs just $9.57 with tax.

And yet some New Yorkers are willing to pay even more green for their greens. Now that summer’s officially here, the city’s most exclusive restaurants are awash in exorbitantly priced rabbit food. The luxe leaves are selling so well that chefs are staffing up the garde manger cold station just to meet the warm-weather demand.

Call them “status salads” — among them the $55 lobster-and-black-truffle salad at the consummate Midtown power lunch spot Four Seasons and the $25 chopped chicken salad at Fred’s at Barneys.

All of which begs the question: How much can you get away with charging for a salad?

“It depends on what’s in it and where you’re eating it,” says guidebook CEO Tim Zagat.

C’mon, out with a number!

“$100 — if you sprinkle enough caviar on top,” he replies.

That artfully plated $55 lobster-and-black- truffle salad at the Four Seasons ­— with a sculptured village of seasonal vegetables — is certainly selling well. When it was a special last week, the titans of industry who gather in the Grill Room gobbled up 30 of them in a single day.

But the popularity of double-digit salads isn’t just about the ingredients, it’s the swank surroundings.

Unlike Michael’s, Café Metro doesn’t have art by David Hockney on its walls, Christofle silver on its tables and actor Michael Douglas lunching with the powerful, Gekko-esque Henry Kravis a couple of seats over. And let’s not forget the impressive size of the Michael’s salad.

[…]As it turns out, New Yorkers are fiercely loyal to their status salads.

“It’s my death-row salad,” says p.r. maven Diana Biederman of the famous Gotham Salad at Bergdorf Goodman. Currently served in the department store’s swanky seventh-floor restaurant BG, it combines diced chicken breast, ham, gruyère, tomatoes, bacon, beets, hard-boiled egg, lettuce and Thousand Island dressing.

Price tag: $25.

Admittedly, it was cheaper back in the ’80s, when Biederman first got hooked. At the time, she was making $6.25 an hour as a salesgirl at Laura Ashley, scrimping and saving just to indulge every few months.

“Since they’ve gone fancy, it’s a little overpriced,” she concedes.

Still, die-hard dieters maintain their salads amount to much more than mere washing and assembling.

“All that meticulous chopping — it would take me an insane amount of time to make,” says Biederman.

‘21’ executive chef John Greeley, who serves a $31 Cobb salad complete with quail eggs and artisanal bacon, agrees. “Each vegetable is cut in a certain way to enhance texture and flavor,” he says. (Note to the hoi polloi: The Cobb will appear as an appetizer on the Summer Restaurant Week menu — three lunch courses for $24.07!)

According to defenders of double-digit salads, the brawny entree-size bowls offer a fairly priced fine-dining meal — especially since they’re so sizable, they’re frequently eaten without an appetizer.

And then there is the simple matter of setting. After all, the pricey greens are often just a civilized pretext for wheeling and dealing.

“If I’m having a business lunch, obviously I’m not taking them to Dishes,” says ‘21’ regular Alexandra Lebenthal, referring to the East 45th Street assembly-line salad spot she occasionally frequents.

The CEO of financial firm Lebenthal & Co. and author of the forthcoming novel “Recessionistas,” Lebenthal is something of a salad connoisseur. In addition to regularly nibbling on the Cobb at ‘21’ (hold the blue cheese), she’s also a fan of the $25 chopped chicken salad — a mix of shredded chicken, avocado, onion, tomato, pears and bibb lettuce tossed in a Dijon mustard-balsamic vinaigrette — at fashionista-friendly Madison Avenue eatery Fred’s.

“At the end of the day, is there anything as satisfying as a salad — except maybe chocolate cake?” she muses.

Still, she’s a bit surprised when told the ‘21’ Cobb salad costs $31.

“I actually never looked at the price,” she laughs.

So, what’s the most she’d pay for a salad?

“$32.”

And what will she do if ‘21’ raises the price?

“Hopefully they’ll grandfather me in,” she says. “I’m a longtime customer.”

For Pulse: Freds @ Barneys Freds Chopped chicken salad $25 Dollars - Credit: Johnathan Beskin

I didn’t want to paste those parts out of context, but I think it’s important to see the highlighted passages.

To me, there are a couple of interesting aspects to this article. For starters, I’ll tell y’all the same way I responded when I first saw this article: “If all of the ingredients are organic, if the blue cheese is homemade, if nothing comes from a bottle and if that chicken is organic and free range… if everything is chopped and pitted correctly and I’m not bothered by seeds or other vegetable innards? You’re darn straight I’d pay that much for it. No bacon though. #TeamAntiBacon

I place a high value on the food I bring into my body and share with my daughter. Some people value their shoe collections (believe me, I am one of those people), some people place a high value on their clothing and for others, it’s their jewelry. I.. I value food.

I appreciate the experience. I make a big deal out of eating. I like pomp and circumstance. I like simplicity. I like dishes and dining experiences that find an appropriate balance between the two. As someone who worked both in a franchise restaurant (think Applebees, Fridays, Chili’s type places) and a small fine dining restaurant, I’ve learned a lot about the difference between dining and feeding. One includes an experience worth every dollar, and one includes an experience where you get what you pay for.

Having said that, there’s also an interesting – and disturbing – bit that needs to be highlighted, here. All the food history that I know… has consisted of this interesting volleying between the rich and the poor. Not the “upper class” and the “middle class.” The rich. And. The poor. There is no middle ground between those who can, and those who cannot. Once upon a time before food manufacturing wasso big, the rich were “the fat ones,” gorging on every fruit and vegetable they could get their paws on. Devouring every ounce of beef and pork they could. This is why the women were accepted for being curvier – it was a sign of being moneyed.

The poor were skimping – portion controlling, saving, penny pinching. Mixing different ingredients so that they could make a lot out of very little. It made tons of sense. It still does.

When food manufacturing became the thing, and people were rushing out to eat this… food… American waistlines started to grow. Everyone scrambled left to right to figure out what the cure for this problem was – more likely, so that food manufacturers could chemically engineer the “problem” out of the food, allowing you to buy as much of it as you want – but the rich.. they pretty much already knew. They went back to minimalistic dining principles. Clean eating.

Compare the menu of your favorite restaurant (provided it isn’t a fine dining one) to the menu of a fine dining restaurant. Compare the portions. Compare the make-up of the dishes. A $36 salad.. that’s enough to buy two racks of ribs, three handfuls of fries and a shot of tequila at the franchise restaurant I have in mind. You might even be hard-pressed to find something like ribs at a full fledged fine dining restaurant.

My point, really, is this – while we’re so busy trying to “live it up” and “live through food,” the upper class are taking the simple route and making the eating more about the experience. While franchise joints are rushing to offer up huge steak and shrimp dinners, fine dining restaurants are focusing more on the experience of dining – not the need to feed – and raising the price on it.

Sounds like all the more reason to create my own dining experience – taking the simplistic route with my dishes and save by cooking from scratch – how about you?

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22 comments

Ashley (DazzlingRayn) June 24, 2010 - 11:04 AM

Sham-wow.

I love to eat, and I love food, but I am unwilling to pay that much for most food, especially a salad. I’m a poor grad student! One of the people quoted talked about how long it would take to chop everything. Um, 20 min? I used to hate chopping but now I really like it, so I don’t mind. In fact, when I make salad at home, everything has to be chopped really small cause my mom has trouble chewing. That includes shredding carrots, chopping celery into tiny chunks, etc. Even still, it doesn’t take that long.

Does a quail egg taste that much different than a chicken egg? Is the difference of taste in a few tablespoons of bacon really worth the price? (#teamprobacon, sorry) I agree with you and making food an experience, but I’d rather go somewhere cheaper 9 times out of 10, or make it at home with my own style of “clean eating”. Honestly, I think the effort makes it taste better. And we make our own dressing!

Erika June 24, 2010 - 1:33 PM

#teamANTIbacon

That is all. LOLOL

JoAnna June 24, 2010 - 11:43 AM

Hi Erika.
John Travolta said something similar in an interview on Bravo’s “The Actor’s Studio”. He said he could take $20 and get a burger,and fries, and a beer at a loud chain eatery, or take that same $20 to a quiet bistro and have a simply prepared fresh meal with a vegetable, a salad, a meat and a glass of wine. It’s all about the experiences you pursue and allow yourself to enjoy.

I love finding new restaurants where I can enjoy sharing a healthy meal with friends and not have to shout to be heard. And I always choose one that serves food I can’t or don’t know how to prepare at home. Otherwise, we dine ala Cafe d’JoAnna and they chip in with the groceries or prep or both. It’s a fun way to get friends together, and/or exchange recipes if we’re having a potluck. Some of my friends just cannot cook, but know wines, and good carryout! Also, $55 is almost my food budget for 2 weeks! I can’t see myself spending that much just on a salad unless it is some type of celebration.

But it looks SO pretty!

Erika June 24, 2010 - 1:35 PM

I agree 100000% with him – after having worked in both kinds of establishments and knowing what is entailed in providing an experience worthy of the dollars you’re demanding? I’m sorry, I’d rather dine out twice a year at an amazing restaurant then go out once a month to a chain joint. I’m straight. LOL

Elita @ Blacktating June 24, 2010 - 1:26 PM

I have gone out to dinner and paid over $40 for an entree, but that entree was typically filet mignon or sea bass, served with two different vegetables. So would I pay $25 for a cobb salad that doesn’t sound like something I could make at home? No. But filet mignon isn’t cheap ($8.99 a pound at BJs!) and although I’ve made it at home before, I was a bag of nerves that I’d ruin it. So in that sense, I’d much rather pay for the expertise in preparation. Anyone can make a good salad, right?

Designer food is not new to NYC. Remember the $100 kobe beef truffle burger? Again, I am willing to pay top dollar for a wonderful dining experience where I’m eating good, well-prepared delicious food in an ambient setting. However, there’s no need for $30 salads or $100 burgers, in my opinion. You can have a gourmet salad at a nice restaurant for much less than that. This really seems to be about another status symbol for rich people. Notice homegirl said she had never even looked at the price of the salad.

Erika June 24, 2010 - 2:15 PM

I just realized it might have something to do with the fact that I don’t eat beef OR fish, LOL… because the thought of paying a hundred dollars for a kobe beef burger just turned my stomach, LOL.

Divinely Naptural June 24, 2010 - 12:31 PM

I live in NYC and Cafe Metro was THE place to go for rich and poor alike who wanted a good lunch. Tossed is another place here where the salads can be pretty high priced if you load on the toppings.

I totally agree with you concerning the dining experience. There is a difference between dining and feeding. (eating casually) Dining I expect to pay more, and I expect the service, quality of the food, flavors, textures etc. (I’m a foodie) and not necessarily the QUANTITY of the food to be substantial.

If I go to a chain restaurant I want to EAT, all pleasantries aside.

The facts are that if someone is offering an experience, no matter how costly, there is always someone gullible enough to pay for it. People often pay for brand names and highly exorbitant prices in clothing, why would food be any different.

Great blog here!

Erika June 24, 2010 - 1:37 PM

I agree with that, too – there will always be someone with money to blow who will blow it on anything – it also has to do with whether the person with the money is even getting a perceived value from their dollars, too. Just ANY ol’ place offering up a $9845723498 dollar salad isn’t going to work – that won’t sell at a chain. But a place beautifully lit, NOT crowded, no slew of shouting or yelling patrons, beautifully decorated with quality food? To me, yes. LOL

Tiffany June 24, 2010 - 9:49 PM

While that salad looks great I would much rather put the money to good use and purchase some new shoes.

Peace, Love and Chocolate
Tiffany

aisha August 9, 2010 - 12:47 PM

I’m late to the party but I did a financial fast that required me to not eat any meals outside of the home for 21 days. My coworker decided to join me and his first sandwich was so sad. I told him he had to make interesting sandwiches using good quality bread if he was going to make it. He had to recreate the fancy stuff we were used to buying. Once we did that it worked out well and for 3 weeks we did it! I save $250.

Janna November 17, 2010 - 3:31 PM

I don’t mind paying a lot for food as long as it’s GOOD food. Time and time again we’ve seen that pomp doesn’t necessarily equate quality.

So give me good. Wherever it may be.

Eva May 18, 2011 - 9:36 AM

This is true. If you go on a cruise ship, there’s the buffet, where you can eat all you want; and there is the fine restaurant; it’s about four courses but smaller portions and it’s about the experience.

Yeah, I’ve paid for that salad, but the salad around where I work in midtown runs about $7.80.

J June 28, 2011 - 5:18 PM

I just can’t. LOL

And I grew up on quail eggs, and yes, I think they’re better than chicken eggs.

I actually have 8 frozen quail in my freezer right now. Mm-mm-good!

PurpleFro July 15, 2011 - 7:42 PM

20 bucks =

Bogo bad of spring salad mix
3 chicken breasts
a carton of eggs
a few tomatos
a bottle of dressing
an onion
a bottle of olives
advocado (wait it grows in my moms backyard…so thats free)
feta cheese

all of this can give me a weeks worth of salad

T.R. September 29, 2011 - 7:28 PM

I co-sign on almost everything you said Erika (except bacon…LOL but we aren’t going to agree on that anytime in the near future :O)

Everyone, EVERYONE, has something they will spend their money on. Whether it’s food, clothes, house, education, etc. Now you can say but some of those things have a higher value than the others. But that’s only to you. So is it elite to me…No it’s what you but a premium on and we all put a premium on something.

On a second note…I’m not sure people treat this foods as status symbols as much as good dinning and business experiences. I think the NY Post tried to make it a rich/poor/average joe issue when I think it’s just people who like good food and a certain atmosphere.

Maybe because I live in LA where food is REALLY a big deal. Yep despite how much people try and stay slim here they LOVE their food. LOL . But I do agree just because it’s a higher price doesn’t mean the food is good, in taste or quality.

I Am Your People September 30, 2011 - 1:27 AM

I think the $36 is really just a way to show you can throw away money, like the $777 burger they sell in Las Vegas and a NY restaurant that sells a $1000 sundae (I watch a lot of Travel Channel)

SB January 13, 2012 - 10:56 AM

Honestly, for the life of me, I can’t understand what upsets other people so much about what someone else chooses to do with THEIR MONEY. It doesn’t bother me one bit that someone would want to pay $36 for a salad – on occassion I may even do that.

Value is in the eye of the beholder (just as beauty is) and as many have pointed out, some place a premium value on the ambience where they choose to dine and for that there is a cost.

Kaija August 21, 2012 - 7:08 AM

No way! I like good food, and I happily indulge from time to time at a swanky restaurant. However, I feel that overpriced salads cross the line between profit and rip-off, and I hate being ripped off. Also, when I dine out, I make it a point to order something that I wouldn’t make at home, something off the usual diet plan, something exotic, something that requires ingredients and/or prep that are beyond my daily kitchen routine. And I can make a kick-ass salad at home! Rich people are addled…I’m not envious, just contemptuous. 🙂

SB August 22, 2012 - 9:06 AM

“Rich people are addled”

Still don’t get why we “hate” rich and successful people. Being rich means one thing to me – having options. I don’t begrudge anyone who has options and chooses to excercise them. It does not make someone thoughtless if they choose not to spend their time putting together an awesome salad at home. They may not have time to do that and they may not want to do that. It’s their money and their choice. Seriously. No skin off my back and I’m only jealous when I don’t have the same options and wish I did.

Lisa December 12, 2012 - 1:46 PM

The most I’ve ever spent on a single meal was about $80 at a swanky downtown restaurant, and I must say it was worth every penny. I’m no foodie, but I do know that the quality of what I ate (the ingredients and their preparation/presentation) was far superior to what I could get at a chain, American-style restaurant. I actually remember how that food felt in my mouth 🙂

I had three small plate entrees of things I never would fix at home that included proteins and veggies, three very mini desserts, and a glass of wine (I usually don’t drink, but it just seemed right for the occasion). The ambiance and service were also wonderful. Is this something I would do regularly? Heck, no! It might cut into my shoe budget, but I do anticipate another indulgence of the same caliber at least 2-3 times a year.

Allison February 5, 2013 - 4:22 PM

Not spending that much on a salad. Ever. If I’m going to spend money it still has to be a good value.

Subrina August 6, 2013 - 12:49 PM

The dining experience is definitely worth the cost.

And also, if you are dining there…the $36 spent on a salad can bring you a contact that will help you make millions of dollars.

And in these establishments…you are definitely eating food (clean eating)…so even more worth it.

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