Restaurant charts of the day, price/quality edition

By Felix Salmon
May 2, 2013
San Pellegrino has released its annual list of the 50 best restaurants in the world, and of course Quartz is on it.

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San Pellegrino has released its annual list of the 50 best restaurants in the world, and of course Quartz is on it. “Ultimately,” writes Adam Pasick, “the world’s best restaurants cater to a global elite who can afford to spend thousands of dollars for a meal”. It turn, that means Quartz, a publication devoted (in both senses of the word) to the global elite, needs to be all over it, with an analysis of how fast-growing countries are over-represented among the restaurants “making big leaps up the rankings”.

But Pasick well knows — because he commissioned this article from me when he was at NYMag — that the elite level of gastro-porn restaurants are not actually targeted at the kind of tourists “that can take a Gulfstream to dinner,” as he puts it. Yes, the San Pellegrino restaurants are expensive. But they’re not international plutocrat, private-jet expensive; anybody in the “mass affluent” can afford to go to any of them, as a special occasion. And indeed unless you happen to live in the same city as one of these restaurants, it’s going to cost you more to get there than it is to eat there.

The chart above, diligently put together by Ben Walsh, shows the top 50 restaurants, in order, with the prices on their websites. (The short green stubs are the restaurants who either don’t put their prices on their website, or who make them so ridiculously hard to find that we ultimately just gave up.) These restaurants like to deal in prix-fixe set menus, which is convenient: the menu prices range from 1800 Thai baht, or $61, at Nahm, to £195, or $304, at the Fat Duck.

Interestingly, it’s hard to tell whether restaurants in fast-growing emerging countries are generally cheaper or more expensive than the ones in developed nations: all of the restaurants in Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Singapore, and mainland China, for instance, have those green bars and are very opaque on pricing. But what we can tell is that there’s no relationship at all between price and quality.

Here’s the scatter chart: there’s no correlation here, but maybe you can see a bit of a clustering around the $200 level.

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And to underline just how random these things are, here’s the same chart only this time using the price rank rather than the absolute price.

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What we’re emphatically not seeing here is any kind of massive price spike among the top 0.01% of restaurants, which you might expect if those restaurants were in fact patronized by the richest 0.01% of people. What we are seeing is a group of expensive restaurants, charging expensive-restaurant prices, but whose position on this list is entirely unrelated to the amount that they charge.

I’m sure there are restaurants in the world — including high-end sushi places — which are more expensive than any of the restaurants on this list. More to the point, I’d expect that all the restaurants on this list offer many bottles of wine whose price is many multiples of their most expensive set menu. With wine, the sky’s the limit when it comes to price; with food, there really does seem to be a limit, somewhere around the $300 per person level. That’s not cheap, by any means. But it’s not the kind of price which is only affordable if you have a private jet and live in a $20 million home. The world of restaurants, it turns out, is positively democratic, at least compared to areas like wine or property. Or even, for that matter, high-end handbags.

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