Restaurant menu

In New York, inflation drives up restaurant menu prices

Clockwise from left: Altro Paradiso Burgers, Corner Bar, the Dutch, Rolo’s, Nowon and Emily.
Photo: Tonje Thilesen

There was a time when people asked me for restaurant recommendations. Now everyone just wants to talk about how expensive it has become to go out. And look, prices are going up everywhere for everything. So let’s talk about burgers. Burgers served at the kind of restaurants that also sell whole branzino for $50. Destination worthy burgers that would once have been $15 or even $25. They are now much more expensive and therefore a useful way to examine the perilous state of the restaurant economy.

Grab the legendary Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern, which is currently $38. That’s $2 more than a year ago and $1 more than the restaurant’s “Grenobloise-style” Arctic char. After taxes and the standard 20% tip, you’ll spend nearly $50 to eat this burger.

Ignacio Mattos’ tidy burger at the Corner Bar is $24 — not bad considering it’s served on a placemat, but then you realize it’s $13 more for an order of fries. Mattos’s other famous burger, topped (appetizing) with Gorgonzola and a caramelized radicchio jam at Altro Paradiso, is $28 before tip and tax ($36.57 after), but the fried potato are included.

The affair of the double pâté and the horse brioche, which as you no doubt know Enjoy your meal once hailed as the best burger in America, is $20.95. If you want bacon, it’s an extra $6.95. A slimy “farm egg,” which is practically necessary if you plan to Instagram your order, will cost you an extra $2.95. All inclusive, plus an order of fries for $11.95: that’s a total of $56 with tax and tip.

These are not outliers. Across town, the amount you’ll pay for a burger (with service and sales tax) has increased: $40.50 at the original Emily’s; it’s $32.66 for the “grass-fed and finished” cheeseburger at Diner; $33.97 at Dutch; and $39.19 for Raoul’s “pepper bar” burger — a slight increase from the $24.80 it would have cost when the late Josh Ozersky called it “the must-have burger of 2014.” In Queens, the $23.50 double cheeseburger at Rolo almost sounds like a bargain, but note that the optional “coppa bacon” will bump the total taxed tip to $27.43.

Of course, there are cheaper burgers. At the Market Line Mighties stand, prices for a smashburger start at $8. On MacDougal Street, a short walk from Minetta Tavern, the 7th Street Burger’s double stack is priced at $9.50. And it seems no one in New York is more than 15 minutes from a Shake Shack. All great burgers, sure, but sometimes it’s nice to relax in a comfy seat and order from a friendly waiter or bartender. Look at any of these starter burgers and the overwhelming demands of market forces become apparent.

In 2019, chef Jae Lee asked $18 for his “legendary burger” at Nowon, two patties topped with American cheese and kimchee mayonnaise. It remains his best-selling item, but it’s now $20 (actual price: $26.12), or there’s an aged model for $25, plus one topped with truffles for $30, with markups so small Lee considers it a loss leader. “I wish I could still charge $18,” he says. “Costs were rising before the pandemic, and it really hasn’t stopped.” And, he warns, “it’s not just about ingredients. It’s garbage collection. ConEd increased. Our rent has gone up. We can no longer hire cooks at $17 an hour.

This rising cost of labor, Lee says, and not necessarily the high price of beef or buns, puts the greatest strain on operators who are already getting nabbed everywhere else. In 2019, Lee’s labor cost percentage—the amount spent on labor measured against total sales—was 36. This year, that number is 40%. At the same time, its food costs, measured against total food sales, fell from 23% to 26%. “Taking everything into consideration,” he says, “something has to give — as much as we want to keep food prices fair and affordable, who does it cost?”

Higher prices also do not directly translate to more profit. “Even restaurants that have come close to their pre-pandemic sales, the margins are smaller because their costs have gone up so much,” says Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an advocacy group in non-profit for the bars, restaurants and clubs of the city. “I think there will be an extended period where food prices remain high and put pressure on various restaurants,” he says. In addition to higher costs, he points out, many restaurants are paying off debt accumulated during the pandemic.

All in all, the burgers, even those approaching $50, are not “too” expensive. Rather, they are indicators of the new normal in New York dining, and these awards are, it should be noted, not unprecedented. Daniel Boulud practically invented the luxury burger segment in 2001, when he launched a $27 creation filled with foie gras and braised ribs at his downtown restaurant DB Bistro Moderne. This price may seem odd by today’s standards, but when adjusted for inflation, it’s equivalent to charging $45.28 in 2022 – a higher price than any other product on the market today.