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Sep 05 2007

Dinner, Art, and Class Warfare: The French Laundry

French_laundry_2I’ll admit right up front: I may be being unfair.

Here’s how this got started. Ingrid and I have a big anniversary coming up soonish: in January 2008 we’ll have been together for ten years. We’d been making vague plans to celebrate by going to The French Laundry — considered by most to be the best restaurant in the entire Bay Area, by many to be the best restaurant in the country, and by some to be the best restaurant in the world. We knew it was pricey, but when one of the best restaurants in the world is just an hour away, it seems a shame not to splurge on it at least once.

Money_2So we were chatting with my in-laws when the subject of The French Laundry came up. We mentioned our plans
 and they told us exactly how expensive dinner for two at The French Laundry is.

Including everything — food, service, wine, tax — dinner for two at The French Laundry costs about $750.

And poof — there go those plans.

It’s not so much that we can’t afford it. If we saved up, if we stopped going out to dinner for a few months and set that money aside, I’m sure we could manage.

CheBut the idea of spending $750 on dinner for two makes my gorge rise. It doesn’t make me think “romantic luxury splurge.” It makes me think “class warfare.” It makes me think of what the blue-collar families in our neighborhood — hell, on our block — could do with that money. Hell, it makes me think about what we could do with that money. The thought of taking that money and shoving it down our gullets makes me both morally and physically nauseous.

FloysterWhich isn’t exactly the frame of mind you want to be in when you’re eating at the best restaurant in the world.

But I started this piece by saying, “I may be being unfair,” and I meant it.

SunprotectionIt can be argued — it has been argued — that a meal at a place like French Laundry isn’t simply a luxury or a splurge. It’s a work of art. And I don’t have any moral revulsion at all over spending $750 on a work of art. I’d do it all the time if I could afford it. I get a little grossed out when I read about millions of dollars being spent on a Van Gogh — especially since Van Gogh lived and died in poverty and won’t ever see a dime of it — but if someone spent $750 on a sculpture by my friend Josie Porter, I wouldn’t be troubled in the slightest. I’d think she deserved every penny of it, and more. Artists work hard at what they do, and spend lots of time learning how to do it well. And I don’t have any doubt that the chefs at French Laundry are artists.

Hundred_dollar_billAnd it’s also the case that this is, to some extent, a question of scale, a difference of degree and not of kind. We’ve never in our lives spent $750 on dinner for two — but we’ve certainly spent $60, $80, $100. Not that infrequently, either. And while the idea of people spending $750 on dinner for two makes me think fond thoughts about storming the castle and parading around with the baron’s head on a pike, I’m sure that for many people, the idea of people spending $100 on dinner for two makes them feel exactly the same way.

FlparmesanSo maybe the whole gorge-rising, heads-on-pikes, moral and political outrage thing really isn’t fair. Maybe it does make sense — not just financial sense, but moral sense — to save up our eating-out budget, to forego the nice dinners out for a while and save up for one truly spectacular one.

I dunno. I really can’t figure this one out. Thoughts?

Sculpture above: Sun Protection by Josie Porter. Copyright © 2006 Josie Porter, all rights reserved. Image reprinted with permission of the artist, who totally kicks ass.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    OrneryPest

    Hey, go for it! If ya got it, blow it! And here I thought this restaurant http://www.zahnisers.com/drydock.htm here in my community was expensive!

  2. 2
    Russell

    ditto.

  3. 3
    mackrelmint

    First off: Congratulations to you and Ingrid! Such an event deserves some sort of celebration to recognize what a special thing this is.
    That said, I understand your gorge rising bit and the need to do something special but the artwork defense doesn’t quite do it for me.
    I have a few reasons why I’d spend the money on something else:
    i.I think that that part of the reason people are willing to spend scads of money on artwork is that they (and friend and other viewers) will get to enjoy the art more than once whereas that won’t happen with the meal.
    ii. Spending that much on just the meal may hinder spending on other parts of the celebration.
    iii. Think of all the OTHER things you could do that would be equally celebratory and special to make that money go farther that would include more than just a meal. (heck, you could probably get plane tickets and more..)
    Or, you could spend less and still enjoy the occasion with money in the bank (or invested or given away to someone more needy).
    iv. What if the meal isn’t what you expected? Would you regret the expenditure?
    Ida know, I would have difficulty justifying the expense, even if I could afford it.

  4. 4
    C4bl3Fl4m3

    I’m one of those people that thinks “oh, wow! I could pay my bills with that $100 dinner for 2!” ($30 is about as much as I’ll spend on dinner for myself… and that’s at the incredible Ethiopian place in town, Meskerem. I’ll spend $20 on sushi.)
    I’m with the above commenter that said don’t do it. Have dinner at a fantastic place that’s a quarter of the price, save a quarter of it for a rainy day, and donate the rest back to charities that help blue collar people like the ones in your neighborhood.
    Or, like someone else said, buy some plane tickets, fly someplace fabulous, and have a fantastic dinner there.
    Congrats on your anniversary!

  5. 5
    Elaine

    One thing about it is that you won’t have any screamin’ babies in the place.
    Ayse and Noel went to French Laundry. Maybe you can email them and ask what their experience was like. I have heard that everything is a little drop of perfection.
    However, they can also lead you to other restaurants that are great.
    I don’t view it as class warfare or anything like that. The place is overstaffed, the location is expensive, the food is the best, the wine is expensive, the PR costs are high and everyone wants to go there. The high cost of a meal pays for the above, allows money for the chef to open other places, and limits the number of people who will actually go to a reasonable amount.
    I save my ire for the Bush administration and people who harm animals.

  6. 6
    Ethyl

    Elaine said:
    “I don’t view it as class warfare or anything like that. The place is overstaffed, the location is expensive, the food is the best, the wine is expensive, the PR costs are high and everyone wants to go there. The high cost of a meal pays for the above, allows money for the chef to open other places, and limits the number of people who will actually go to a reasonable amount.”
    I’m an insufferable food snob, and have been very lucky to have eaten at some extremely expensive, famous places (thanks to my dad, frankly, but still…). And in all honesty, while those meals were memorable, I’d much rather spend my money somewhere where you’re NOT paying for the location, the decor, and the chance to glimpse a celebrity. I’ve had some absolutely exquisite meals that were very affordable, incredibly artistic, with great service and good wine. There’s no need to spend $750 for a truly great dining experience, I guess is what I’m saying.
    What makes it special is 10 years with the woman you love, not $750 and still being kind of hungry at the end of the night :D

  7. 7
    Jen

    I say don’t do it. I don’t know if I agree that it is class warfare, because, as you said, you certainly spend your money on non-necessities. We all do, even the poor. I would like to frame it in a way we discussed in my philosophy class several years ago.
    Do you deserve the money you have?
    You have a job or jobs and you (general “you”) earn a certain salary and most people think that means they are entitled to that money because “they earned it” or “they worked hard for that money”. Its true that you probably put a certain amount of work into your current position, and you probably went to college or at least graduated high school. But most of what you have in life is due to sheer luck. You were lucky enough to be born into a society that offered to educate you for free, that offered you firemen and police protection and other things that most people in most countries would kill to have. The poorest American has it better than most of the third world. Yes, you wored hard, but you were also born lucky that your food, shelter, and other basic needs were cared for. Had you been born into a world without those basic needs, it would be almost impossible to work your way up to where you are now.
    The point of this philosopher’s exercise was to point out that you do have a right to spend your money however you choose- shoes, DVDs, the French Laundry. However, if you start to look at your fortune as mostly a result of luck, it seems less “yours” even if you earned it, because its only yours because you were lucky. It becomes easier to release it into the world.
    I think ten years is fantastic, and congrats, and celebrate however you wish- but I personally would never go somewhere that expensive for dinnner. Hell, I don’t go anywhere more expensive than the Olive Garden. Perhaps choose a place that is more about your relationship- where you had your first dinner date, or where you had your first kiss, or something equally cheesy?

  8. 8
    Sakurai

    I don’t think there’s any moral difference between spending 750 dollars on various luxuries or special occasions over the course of a few months, or spending 750 dollars all at once while forgoing all the other luxuries. I sure wouldn’t want to spend that much on a meal (every time I took a bite, I’d be thinking, “welp, there goes a whole DVD, all chewed up and gone”) but if you’ll enjoy it, I don’t see the problem. It sounds like you might not, though, in which case I’d say skip it.

  9. 9
    Greta Christina

    Wow. Fascinating comments. Thanks, everybody. Not to cut the conversation off… in fact, what’s been said so far is raising some interesting new questions and themes, and I’m curious to hear more.
    The larger questions I’m seeing are:
    Why do so many of us consider travel to be an inherently more valuable experience than food? It’s just as ephemeral. If you’d spend ten times as much to travel to Paris than to a nice town 25 miles away, why would you not spend ten times as much to go to a world-class restaurant than to a nice restaurant in your neighborhood?
    Why do so many of us consider physical art to be more valuable than transitory art? Why would we feel better spending more money on a painting or a sculpture than on a play, a concert, or a meal?
    Do we have a harder time seeing food as art? Is a truly world-class, “best in the country and possibly the world” meal somehow a more trivial artistic experience than, say, one of the best concerts in the world?
    And is there a difference — aesthetic, ethical, or political — between one big luxury art splurge and ten little ones spread out over time?
    Just some thoughts on the thoughts that have been expressed so far. Please continue.

  10. 10
    Rebecca

    One thing has been little touched upon in this discussion that I definitely consider important in political questions regarding money:
    Where does the money go?
    Part of buying an artist’s art, particularly when you buy it from the artist personally or from a gallery where you actually interact with the gallery owner, is that you have a sense of where your money is going. Not to Christie’s or Walmart, but to one or two human beings.
    My mother, who does have somewhat more money than she needs, buys a lot of art this way, native art in various countries and cultures, and local art in her community.
    So let’s think about French Laundry that way for a minute.
    One thing that I would say in their favor is that they are buying produce from local organic farms. Those are some hard-working people who are taking good care of the earth too.
    Then there’s the staff. They probably work their butts off, and make darned good tips — even just 15% of a French Laundry check is a heck of a lot of money.
    A lot of that money has got to be wine. Good wine, but with quite a high markup. You are paying the restaurant to pick that wine, however, which they most likely do better than you or I.
    As for the owner/chef… well, that’s one crazy rich artist. Do you know anything about the individual? Does he deserve it? What do you think, Greta?

  11. 11
    Rebecca

    Why do my paragraph breaks go away when I post?

  12. 12
    sabrina

    congratulations..ten years:)
    Your quandary reminds me of a discussion my boyfriend and I have had on occasion. Before I met him I was very frugal on dinner bills when going out. On the other hand, he would fly to New York to have three or four hundred dollar dinners. On my side, though, I love to spend money on trips, so dropping a couple of thousand to ski the Alps is totally worth it to me. Regardless, though, I went to his fancy restaurants(as opposed to the bar fare I was used to) and the food is art. It’s wonderful. Now, I can totally spend a hundred or even two hundred on food, but $750. That’s got to be a thousand times over the production costs. I would have a hard time, but I’m sure the food is worth it. My question, what if it’s not, what if it’s okay? Can you get your money back?…

  13. 13
    Ethyl

    “Do we have a harder time seeing food as art? Is a truly world-class, “best in the country and possibly the world” meal somehow a more trivial artistic experience than, say, one of the best concerts in the world? ”
    For me, personally, no. I get a great amount of satisfaction and enjoyment from food — much more than my boyfriend, who for some reason seems to lack either an appreciation of food as an aesthetic experience, or maybe he just has a lousy sense of smell/taste, I’m not sure. In any event, I really think what I was trying to say is that you can get an exquisite food experience, even a splurgy one, that you don’t have to spend $750 on. IME, it seems like the law of diminishing returns once you get past, oh, $250 (for dinner for 2, let’s say). Sure the service might be better, or the view might be better, but the food can only be as good as the ingredients and the chefs. And I’d be willing to bet that chefs at a $750 place aren’t making that much more than the chefs at a $250 place, mainly due to the factors already mentioned — you’re paying for the name, for the location, for the rent in an expensive district, for the additional servers, etc.
    So my vote is, go somewhere splurgy, where the food is still art, but that isn’t so over-the-top. You can still have a wonderful experience, but without all the… you know, added expense.

  14. 14
    OrneryPest

    I look at it this way: When you die, so says the Mystic Sage, your life passes before your eyes, and that’s your eternity. If you’ve spent your life enjoying experiences and sharing your enjoyment, the memories are yours forever and nobody can ever take them from you. But if you’ve spent your life acquiring things, all these things will now belong to Somebody Else, who will probably use them in a way you disapprove of, and you won’t be able to do a thing about it. So enjoy and forget the cost!

  15. 15
    mackrelmint

    Last night I brought up your quandary with my husband and explained what my initial response (#3) had been. Even as I explained it to him, I began bringing up those very points you just mentioned. Why does it seem more justifiable to me to spend the same amount of money so long as it is spent it on more things, or on artwork that doesn’t get consumed or on something (like travel) that is also transitory but lasts longer than a single meal?
    For me it comes down to getting more for the money, my perception of how much “more” I could possibly get in one meal and most especially if I consider how far that money could go. It’s not the amount per say but what it is spent on. Travel is typically expensive but provides the opportunity to experience a unique destination and all the culture and scenery that that entails and so that may justify the expense (for me). The same amount of money could also buy a few months’ worth of groceries. I suppose I’m with Ethyl on this in that I see a fraction of that amount also getting you an expensive splurgy fantastic meal and that the additional expense may not (and doesn’t seem likely to me) get you more of that specialness. That’s where the problem is for me and where my knee-jerk reaction of “But on ONE meal!??” comes from.
    My husband remembered a situation when planning a back country trip in the winter through Canada’s arctic. Should he spend a thousand dollars on a really good warm parka or make do with a cheaper parka he already owned and spend the money on lots of wool clothing and many other supplies and gear? Stretch the money into more items or just a single one? The problem’s not quite the same as these were all things he needed for his very survival and many of which he still owns and is able to reuse, unlike a celebratory meal/artwork that gets consumed. He pointed out though, that the trip itself was a splurge for him and it was simply a matter of where to allocate the money.
    So I talked myself into a circle and had to simply shrug and admit that regardless of whether it was “right” to ever spend that amount of money on anything other than necessities, I could spend the money on a trip but never on a single meal (or on concert tickets).
    I suppose were you to say that the two of you had decided to go ahead and splurge and go to French Laundry to celebrate, I’d wish you a fantastic evening, and also be more understanding knowing that you’d carefully thought about the ethics of spending the money there and what the event means to you. I would just REALLY want you to not feel badly or guilty or regretful about it at all and be able to enjoy every morsel and nanosecond of that evening.

  16. 16
    Colin

    It really all depends on the soup of the day.

  17. 17
    C4bl3Fl4m3

    As per your comments and questions that you posted as a comment.
    It’s all a matter of scale.
    1.) Why Paris instead of 10milesawayville is ok and The French Laundry instead of TastyNeighborhoodRestaurant isn’t? Because you’re IN Paris a lot longer than you’re eating that meal. As much as I enjoy really good food, Paris is more of an experience. You get more bang for your buck.
    2.) I would spend X times more than a dinner out… to a point. If I had the money I used to make ($42k a year as opposed to the less than 20k I make now), I’d consider going out for a $70 dollar meal for a big event like that anniversary. But that’s still only $70.
    Also, there’s GOT to be places that are as good as the French Laundry at a fraction of the cost. Part of what you’re paying for, as someone said, is location and the chance to see a celebrity. For me, that’s not worth it. (Well, location to an extent.) I’ve had such incredible food at such incredible prices that I can’t imagine how food would be $750 of enjoyment. But then again, I’ve never experienced really high class dining. (It still didn’t really get much better for me than the 2 times I had fois gras at reasonably priced restaurants when I was in France.)
    And someone else mentioned “The high cost of a meal pays for the above, allows money for the chef to open other places, and limits the number of people who will actually go to a reasonable amount.” Notice “number of people who will actually go to a reasonable amount”. That kind of attitude (not from the OP, but from a restaurant) smacks of classism. It’s very “only people who can afford to come here deserve to come here. We only want RICH people at our restaurant. This will keep the poor riff raff out!” And that bothers me.

  18. 18
    Ru Temple

    Ya know, for my wooden nickel, I’d suggest that you get yourselves a copy of the French Laundry cookbook and some fyne frrresh ingredients; a Josie Porter sculpture to display in your house, and spend a night in some lovely B&B with dinner and breakfast and some attentive romance, in celebration of the two of you.
    I miss you all! I’ve been way and away here and there this spring and summer, and head-down in my own little work world the rest of the time. Love all around. and – I’m ready for my Pie.

  19. 19
    Ebonmuse

    I’m with Ethyl: I’m sure the French Laundry is a great restaurant, but is a $750 meal going to provide three times as much enjoyment as a $250 meal at a similar high-end establishment? I doubt it.
    I think there’s a point at which diminishing returns set in. You could enjoy one meal, or, for the same money, have a whole variety of different experiences that will probably provide much more pleasure in the aggregate than that one meal would have.

  20. 20
    Greta Christina

    Damn, I love this blog. I love the commenters on this blog. And I love that I can never, ever predict which posts are going to spark the big discussions.
    I wanted to give you an update on where Ingrid and I are at with this. As far as the anniversary goes, we’re not going to the French Laundry. Completely apart from the money, it’s just not personal or sentimental enough. Instead, it looks like we’re going to the Madonna Inn, which is where we had our 5th anniversary and where we got engaged.
    So now the question on the table is: Do we EVER want to go the French Laundry? Will we ever want to spend $750 for dinner for two at what may be the best restaurant in the world?
    Politically and ethically, I’m not convinced that there’s any real difference between ten $75 dinners and one $750 one. You could argue that it’s better to support smaller neighborhood restaurants, but I don’t think our patronage or lack thereof is going to make or break the mid-range restaurant business in San Francisco. And I think Rebecca made a good point about how restaurants like French Laundry do support small organic farms, etc. So I think politically and ethically, saving up our “nice dinners out” budget for a year or so to splurge on the French Laundry would be totally valid.
    So the big question seems to be: Would it be worth it?
    And of course, without doing it, we’ll never know the answer to that.
    On the one hand (speaking for myself here, and somewhat for Ingrid), I really enjoy food and care about it as art. I love that I live in one of the best, most cutting-edge centers for food in the world. And when you care a lot about food, and when what is arguably the best restaurant in the entire world is about an hour’s drive from your house, it seems silly not to try it at least once.
    But the “diminishing returns” argument that Ebon and others have made is a good one, and Ingrid has pointed it out as well. What if dinner for two at French Laundry cost, not $750, but $1500? $3000? $5000? There has to be a point at which it’s just not worth it no matter how good it is. And $750 is, at the very least, pretty darned close to that point, if not totally past it. There’s a point at which you have to ask yourself: Would we really enjoy this more, and would the memory of the experience be more special and enriching, than ten dinners at our favorite neighborhood restaurant? More than a fresh paint job in our living room? More than that new tattoo I want to get? More than plane tickets to New York?
    (Obviously, plenty of people think so. But I’m betting those are mostly people with more money than we have, who don’t have to decide between the amazing meal and re-painting the living room.)
    But then there’s the other way to look at this question: If we never do this, will we regret it? If I found out that French Laundry was closing next week, would I regret never having been there?
    I kind of think I would. It’s probably not rational, it would probably make more sense to re-paint the living room or even fly to New York. But I think that if I never do this, I’d regret it.
    Then again, I could see going, and thinking, “Well, yes, that was fine, but it really wasn’t as great as all the other things we could have done with that money”… and regretting that as well.
    So I still don’t know. I’m leaning towards “Someday yes, I probably want to do this.” But I could go back and forth about it forever. Maybe we should just fucking do it, so I can stop obsessing about it. :-)

  21. 21
    Susie Bright

    I think about two thirds of that bill at F.L. is very finely rinsed hogwash. No, you will never regret missing it. I will feed you raspberries from our garden that will send you right to the moon, without a single bourgeois pretension.

  22. 22
    Assaf

    We celebrated my father’s 70th birthday at the French Laundry. Cost me $1200 and it was worth it(to us). My rant is about “to each its own”.
    1. Like anything else, it is a matter of preference. If what you want to do is eat, then this is not the place for you. If you want a 4 hour show, and appreciate good food, then it might be.
    2. It should be discretionary income that you use. If you’ll have to starve on Monday, you should have no place at the FL on Sunday.
    3. How much would a 4 hour ticket to the opera or superbowl cost? If food is important to you, the FL is wonderful. If football is, then superbowl tickets are worth it.
    4. Coming from sales, there is one truth here: People never make rational buying decisions. People rationalize their decision.
    5. All this discussion is moot because getting into the FL is virtually impossible.
    Lastly, I love the Madonna Inn. Also, if I were you, I’d try to stay at Justin Vineyards. They also have a great reataurant (not 750$ though…).

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