What is “value”? The idea of getting your money’s worth while dining out is such a controversial and subjective thing that many food critics dispense with it, in part or entirely.
The problem is at least twofold: First, gourmets sometimes take the sniffily privileged attitude that if you have to ask what something costs, you really must not care much about food in the first place.
Secondly, we all have friends or relatives who could be taken to Bar La Grassa on a great night only for them to emerge complaining about how the portions are so much bigger (and less expensive!) at the Burnsville Olive Garden.
That said, there has to be a useful, transparent way to wrestle with what restaurant food should cost versus what it does cost. We thought we’d take a crack at this goal by evaluating our experience at Gianni’s Steakhouse, in Wayzata.
My wife and I visited Gianni’s due to an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend. We were told that it’s a traditional steakhouse, a family place — these are things we’re familiar with and enjoy, having both grown up with Wisconsin supper club culture. The plan was to have a leisurely, old-fashioned Midwestern meal, but by the end of the night, we felt as though we’d been politely mugged by steak-toting bandits.
But how to unravel what happened without sounding like a jerk? The food, after all, wasn’t bad — it simply felt overpriced. What follows is my best stab at forensic gastronomic accounting, an attempt to account for where the money went.
Two numbers follow each item we ordered. The first, the menu price. The second, the perceived value — what we thought seemed fair based on competing restaurants’ dishes, quality of food, estimated cost of ingredients, and overall enjoyment of the item.
Item: Glass of Pinot Grigio
We failed to note the maker of this aggressively priced glass of wine, which is a shame — it would be worthwhile to buy a bottle and see if measured down to the version served at Gianni’s. We asked the waiter for a wine recommendation, and he steered us (without detailed explanation) toward the most expensive glass on the menu. The wine that arrived was in a carafe, rarely a good sign (and a reason why the name of the bottle escapes me). It tasted like something from a decent $5 bottle at Trader Joe’s — flat, lifeless, a bit sweet, and ultimately too lame to drink.
List price: $13.50
Perceived Value: $3
Item: Summit EPA on draft
The Summit EPA, however, tasted like a Summit EPA.
List price: $5
Perceived Value: $5
Tableside Spun Salad
One of the most charming aspects of Gianni’s is its tableside “spun salad” service. A wide range of toppings (including anchovies and shrimp) can be selected on an ala carte basis and added to a salad which is mixed by being spun at high speeds in a bowl, tableside. It would be nice if these salads would be included with the high-priced entrees, but since they aren’t, $6 certainly seems fair.
List Price $6 (with entree)
Perceived Value: $6
Eggy enough to taste like mini-omelets, these Oysters Rockefeller were somewhat redeemed by an aggressive shot of Tabasco. An order of Meritage’s Oysters Meritage is $5 cheaper and considerably tastier, but it’s understandable that this kind of an appetizer would price out at at least $1.50 an oyster, so let’s stick with that ($9) as our perceived value for the dish.
List Price: $16
Perceived Value: $9
This house specialty side order of sour cream, cheddar, and onion-laced hash-brown style potatoes is supposedly big enough to feed two to four people — in reality, the giant mound of food that arrived could easily satisfy a table of six.
The enormous side would in theory make the dish a great value were it not for the quality of the food involved — the cheddar was flavorless and low-grade, the onion flavor un-noticeable (some chives, scallions, or other more aggressive flavor would have really helped wake up this food-service grade mountain of glop) and the whole mass was akin to breakfast at Denny’s. The total cost of ingredients involved to make this spud dump can’t be more than $3, and that comes through on the plate.
List price: $13
Perceived Value: $5
Petite Filet Mignon
Gianni’s makes a decent steak. The Petite Filet was pleasantly mild and buttery, and had a good char to it, but it didn’t compare in intensity of flavor to a similar cut and style we’d tried at Manny’s. Gianni’s wet ages its steak, while Manny’s dry ages its meat — a more time-consuming method that further concentrates the flavor of the meat. To be fair, Manny’s charges more, too – $41 for its small filet.
List price: $35
Perceived value: $25
Ordered medium rare, this Duroc pork chop arrived medium well and difficult to cut. Compared to a Duroc pork chop sampled at Heartland, it lacked both flavor and tenderness. A Ponderosa pork chop is $10 and includes buffet plus choice of potato. Let’s grant that the Gianni’s pork chop is arguably better, but after you deduct the potato (value $6.50 at Gianni’s) and buffet (heck, $3.50), the perceived value of Gianni’s version ends up, generously, at about $10. An accompaniment of sweet corn and thick-cut bacon bits was tasty, however, and certainly worth $5.
List price: $28
Perceived value: $15
So, let’s run the numbers:
Total price of meal (before tip and tax): $116.50
Total perceived value of meal (before tip and tax): $68.00
Ultimately, then: By the time we were done with dinner, it felt like we overpaid by almost double, which is pretty brutal. Subjective? Sure. If you disagree, run the numbers yourself for us in the comments section; it’d be interesting to see another perspective.
And if you’re wondering about dessert: By the time we finished the entrees, we were in cut-our-losses mode. We hit the Ben & Jerry’s shop down the street, which, valuewise, turned out to be a fine move.