Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

The Price Isn't Right: Oscar Wilde once defined a cynic as one who knows "the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Well, I'm starting to feel more and more cynical. That's because Valley restaurant prices are starting to get way out of hand.

When I first started this job more than seven years ago, the magic entree number was $15. Except for a handful of high-end places, most menus topped out their main-dish prices at $14.95. That was the line most restaurantgoers refused to cross.

Of course, back in 1992, the Valley was struggling to get out of recession. Every other home seemed to have a "foreclosure" sign out front, unemployment was high and the Dow was under 4,000. Since then, the economy has boomed, and we've enjoyed seven fat years.

But the compounded rate of inflation since 1992 is under 20 percent. Those $15 entrees should now be about $18.

You'd never know it from current prices, however. You'd think we're living in inflation-wracked Weimar, Germany, in the 1920s, when people hauled money around in wheelbarrows to buy a loaf of bread.

We crossed the $20 entree line several years ago. The $19.95 entrees of 1995 were $24.95 by 1997. Last year, some of the main-dish fare at ultraluxe restaurants even edged past the $30 mark.

But my breath was taken away when I saw Mary Elaine's new menu. Three entrees have crossed the $40 line: Filet of turbot with almonds, fresh hearts of palm and black truffles ($42); Maine lobster macaroni with oven-dried tomatoes, zucchini and basil ($41); and roasted rack of Colorado lamb with crispy potato-corn tart and a warm salad of French beans ($43). The least expensive entree in this posh room is $31.

At Different Pointe of View, a veal chop stuffed with mushrooms will set you back $36. At Eddie Matney's Fine Dining room, roasted poussin--that's chicken, folks--hit $32.95.

It's not only the high-end places that are ratcheting up prices. I had to rub my eyes when I saw what the accountants have been doing at Bistecca.

Back in December, I praised this Fashion Square steak house for serving quality steaks at a moderate price. Porterhouse for two was $39.95; the rib eye for two was $37.90; and the 12-ounce filet mignon was a very reasonable $16.95.

Apparently, Bistecca's management was just toying with the public. To my astonishment, prices have taken an unconscionable leap in just a few months: the porterhouse is now 50 bucks; the rib eye is $48; and the filet mignon goes for $21.95. We're now almost in Morton's and Ruth's Chris pricing territory, for lower-quality meat. During its first few months of operation, Bistecca gave steak lovers value. Now it's giving them a kick in the pants.

Thank goodness we're not yet at New York levels, where a side of garlic mashed potatoes routinely goes for $7.50, and Lespinasse's potato leek soup, flecked with lobster and white truffles, will set you back $35.

My advice: Hold on to your wallets. It's going to be a bumpy 1999.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel