The trouble with writing about cheap eats — which I do as the $20 Diner — is that few can agree on what constitutes cheap. One person’s weekly helping of lamb biryani, at $16 a plate, is another’s semiannual indulgence. In a country where income disparity is a serious issue, I understand that not everyone will enjoy the fruits of my labor, no matter how budget-friendly those fruits may be.
But recently it has come to my attention that some readers view my column from another perspective: They weigh its merits on the value of the meal under discussion or whether the food constitutes a “deal.” A few online commenters, in particular, took issue with the $17 margherita pizza at Etto, which I recommended for Washington interns looking to upgrade their standard dorm-room fare with chef-driven options that still hover under the designated price point.
Their comments, while couched in the blunt language of the anonymous Web gasbag, compelled me to think deeper about the concept of value. My first thoughts, I must confess, weren’t charitable to those readers who help keep us in business: Why must you always assess value based on portion size vs. the price you paid, as though every plate must be engineered to pack the maximum number of calories that money can buy? Dining should not be a contest to see whose stomach stretches the widest from all the dough and cheese you can devour in a single sitting.
Perplexed by this focus on value, I did what many journalists do these days. I crowd-sourced the question on Facebook: Why is everyone obsessed with a good deal, instead of just a good meal, when dining out? The responses were pointed, smart and sometimes cutting. Kaz Okochi, chef-owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro, wrote: “Generally, some Americans still have the mentality of ‘bigger is better, more is better’ and value quantity over quality. That is why we see [the] ‘portion was too small’ comment all the time on online reviews.”
A friend, Charles Sweeney, had a different take, one tied to our country’s still-emerging food culture. Perhaps our focus on value, he offered, is “because Americans still have a relatively low level of appreciation for good cooking — eating out for convenience or because it’s trendy to be a food aficionado — and so they’re pained by the extra cost that good cooks and good ingredients add to a meal. They really just want to chow down.”
America, it seems, is still trying to recover from its heady post-World War II cocktail of industrialization, convenience and leisure, which persuaded an entire country to free itself from the “burdens” of the kitchen to focus on the good life. Fast-food companies and major food manufacturers were only too happy to rush in and fill our stomachs — and fill our heads with the bankrupt idea that an increasingly centralized feeding system was both sustainable and good for us in the long run. Government subsidies for corn and soybeans, of course, have helped keep prices artificially low, even in the meat markets, where animals are often fattened up on grains.
Each succeeding generation, whether conscious of it or not, has been raised on the notion that food should be cheap and plentiful. That belief apparently has dulled us not only to the true costs of high-quality food but also to the idea that one product might be superior to another. As author Michael Pollan noted when I put the value question to him via e-mail, all eggs are not alike.
“We Americans tend to emphasize as value the characteristics we can quantify, overlooking those qualities we sense but can’t measure or even easily describe,” Pollan wrote while on summer travel. “I often make this point about the price of a pastured egg, which seems outrageous for something that looks identical [to a conventional egg] but is not.”
The problem can be particularly acute when dealing with cuisines, dishes or drinks that historically have been peddled at bargain-basement prices. Think Mexican food, bowls of Vietnamese pho or even something as common as the bloody mary. On the breakfast and brunch menus at its D.C. and Potomac locations, Founding Farmers serves a bloody mary for $12, a price that has irritated some customers accustomed to their $6 cocktail of V8 juice spiked with rail vodka and a pre-made spice mix, managing partner and concept developer Dan Simons told me recently.
The Founding Farmers bloody mary features American Harvest organic vodka infused in-house with organic peppers. The spiced spirit is then mixed with Sacramento brand tomato juice, which is invigorated with freshly grated horseradish, fresh citrus, kosher salt and black pepper. The drink is garnished with either organic green beans or organic asparagus. Even the straw is biodegradable, Simons said.
“I’m not necessarily making any more profit on my $12 bloody mary than the $6 bloody mary maker is making on his,” he added.
Over at Etto , paying $17 for a margherita pizza might feel like a fleecing for a 13-inch pie topped with a tight-fisted amount of tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. But this creation, like most minimalist works, conceals its art under a veneer of simplicity.
Several days a week in the back of the dining room, well before Etto opens at 5 p.m., co-owner Peter Pastan can be found standing over an Austrian stone mill, grinding hard winter wheat and spelt that he buys from California. A small amount of those flours is mixed with water and fresh yeast to create a biga starter, which ferments for a few hours before being incorporated into the remaining flour to form the dough. The dough rises for several hours, then is refrigerated overnight. The next morning, the dough is formed into small balls and promptly tucked back in the cold.
Two days after the dough is first mixed, its flavors developing over many hours of fermentation, Etto’s cooks begin to stretch the rounds for their line of pizzas. For its margherita, Etto relies on a number of Italian imports: plum tomatoes from Campania, Il Grezzo cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil from Umbria and fresh buffalo mozzarella from Caserta. The fresh basil sometimes comes from Florida, sometimes Pennsylvania, depending on availability. All told, Pastan estimates he spends $4.66 on ingredients for his $17 margherita, which roughly translates into a 27.4 percent food cost.
The industry standard for a pizzeria, Pastan related, is around 25 percent. “At the most,” he added. That might not sound like a significant difference, but for a restaurant that does, say, $2 million in sales annually, those 2.4 points would translate into $48,000 in lost revenue every year.
Then you have to calculate the other costs that inflate the price of the pie, starting with rent on the trendy 14th Street corridor, not to mention utilities, labor and insurance. Those thin sticks of oak and hickory for the wood-burning oven aren’t free, either; Etto pays about $215 per half-cord. And how to calculate the decades of experience that Pastan has accumulated in the gourmet pizza business, starting with his days at Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle? Or the years that co-owner Tad Curtz has spent learning the vagaries of dough or mastering the wood oven, in which pies can easily incinerate without a steady hand on the peel and a constant eye on the fire?
“There are days when the dough is beautiful . . . and it just works, like it wants to get cooked,” Curtz said, with a snap of his fingers. “Those are the nights when working with the oven is, like, the most fun ever. And then there are days when the dough is just off, and you want to shoot yourself.”
When all the elements come together — the dough perfectly proofed, the fire burning at the right temperature, the pie charred and blistered just enough — the resulting pizza can feel like a gift, at any price. The last time I sampled the margherita at Etto, late one night after many hours at work, I remember the waves of pure sensual pleasure that the pizza generated: the smoke, the chew, the salt, the sweetness. Part of my enjoyment was this basic appreciation for how much work, and how many years of struggle, went into something so deceptively simple.
So how does a restaurant communicate such information without becoming one of those places that beat diners over the head with self-congratulation? You know what I mean: The restaurant where the menu is littered with the names of purveyors and suppliers, and every dish is described as “handmade” or “handcrafted” or “artisanal.” Simons, for one, relies on his wait staff at Founding Farmers to tip off patrons to the craft behind the cooking.
But servers can come across as robotic — or, worse, pedantic — when reading from a manager’s script. Which is why I believe that the burden remains on us, the diners, to be curious and informed about a restaurant’s pedigree and mission. We might not initially understand why a pizza cost $17, but once we search for and find answers, the reasons will become clear, and we can enjoy that pie without complaint or guilt over the money spent.
In short, I’m suggesting that American diners — at least those with discretionary income and a desire to dine at cheffy places — shed their deeply held habit of assigning value based on the volume of food or the level of price alone. That calculation has not always served us well: It has led, obviously, to eating more food than we need. But more than that, it has led to a kind of culinary oblivion, in which our craving for cheap, calorie-dense meals blinds us to the art and craft of the dishes that we profess to love in the first place.