Monday, October 8, 2012

What's Behind Minibar's Price Hike?

Minibar, the modernist jewel in the Jose Andres restaurant empire crown, started taking reservations last week as it prepares to reopen November 2. Although the one-block move from its former space in Cafe Atlantico to the former Zola Wine & Kitchen space has allowed the restaurant to double its seating (from 6 to 12), it will surely remain one of the region's most elusive reservations.

Despite the challenge of getting in, what has raised eyebrows most about the move is the change in price: the per-person Minibar experience that was $150 is now 50 percent more at $225. Washington City Paper's Jessica Sidman came up with a clever diagram of what other D.C. tastes could be enjoyed at that price point (my addition: 11 Iberico pork sandwiches from Andres' food truck Pepe).

As reported by the Washington Post, Minibar claims the increase is due to the restaurant's unique experience--an "extraordinary culinary performance." Perhaps, but wasn't that the case before the move? I wonder if other factors may be at play.

Economics could certainly be one. While it might be nice to think that restaurants set their prices to cover cost plus modest profit, demand has to be a more important driver. And Minibar has certainly demonstrated that it is a restaurant in demand, no doubt even more with the restaurant's refresh. Jose Andres remains as popular and visible as ever, increasingly as one of the nation's most respected and influental chefs.

That could play into what I suspect is another reason for the price-hike: prestige. Among the Washington area's finest restaurants, Minibar's $150 was competitive. Most of the four-star restaurants' tasting menus run in the low-to-mid $100s range, with CityZen on the low end at $105-$125 and Inn at Little Washington at the high $158 to $188 (and let's note that by comparison, Rasika's $60-$75 tasting menu is a real steal--I bet that price goes up soon). Minibar's new price point puts the restaurant out of league among the pricies local dining spots.

But what league is it in then? On par with New York City? Perhaps, but even in New York, $225 for a tasting menu is pretty steep. Its six (New York Times-rated) four-star restaurants' tasting menus range in price from $145 at Del Posto to $270 at Per Se--with Per Se being far and away the most expensive (second-most expensive Daniel is $195 to $220). So basically, Minibar has priced itself beyond even the New York dining scene.

Where it does fit in then is the national landscape of flagship restaurants from America's most prominent chefs. Judging from this Business Insider list, the $225 per person (which will shoot up dramatically when drinks, tax and tip are included), will put Minibar within the top 10 most expensive restaurants in the country, a status that includes restaurants from Thomas Keller (French Laundry and Per Se), Joël Robuchon (his eponymous Las Vegas destination) and Alinea, Grant Achatz modernist Chicago restaurant.

Does that raise my ire? Not really. Sure, I'd love to eat at Minibar someday, but with a $225 starting price that day will not be anytime soon. But I can (and do) eat at Jaleo, Oyamel and Zaytinya whenever I want, enjoying Andres' other, more affordable and often quite spectacular restaurants. You can scoff at Minibar's price as being elitist or you can consider it an important, trend-setting destination worthy of its national posturing. By comparison, I can't afford to dress myself in Giorgio Armani suits, but that doesn't mean that Armani isn't an important part of fashion (nor does it mean that I don't look nice).

A more important question is whether Minibar, and by extension Andres, deserves this status. I'll let those more versed in fine dining answer that one, although his national restaurant empire and multiple James Beard awards and cooking shows suggest he's no flash-in-the-pan.


  1. Good analysis. I'm sure a lot of folks will instinctively criticize Jose Andres for doubling the prices at Minibar, but you took the time to consider what other factors might be at work here. I hope you've given his critics something to think about. Nice job!