Chef Kwame Onwuachi wasn’t surprised that people would find his restaurant expensive. After all, the tasting menu at the Shaw Bijou, opening Nov. 1, costs $185. You don’t have to buy a beverage pairing, too, but if you get the most expensive option, once tax and a service fee are included, the grand total arrives: $481 per person. You can do the math for a couple on a date.
What he and his team weren’t prepared for was the vicious reaction on social media when tickets for the restaurant went on sale a few weeks ago.
What caught him and Onwuachi off-guard, said general manager Greg Vakiner, “was how positive everything had been until we threw a dollar amount out, and then it was like we literally just put our head on the chopping block and people were taking slices.” It wasn’t the Washington he had come to know over the past year. “I thought people were supportive.”
The people criticizing the Shaw Bijou’s prices would probably say that this is not the Washington they know, either. Is the city of half-smokes that kind of place? It is now. The Michelin Guide arrives next month, in the wake of a series of expensive restaurant debuts this year: Pineapple and Pearls, with its $250 all-inclusive price, opened in early April and Eric Ziebold’s Metier, with a tasting menu at $200, excluding drinks, opened two weeks later. The Georgetown restaurant 1789 just reopened as a prix-fixe restaurant, at $85 to $109 for its tasting menus. And Minibar, the current record-holder for the most expensive restaurant in the city, raised its prices this year, from $250 to $275, with beverages costing up to an additional $500. The price was $65 when Minibar debuted in 2003.
Those restaurants join the stalwarts of special-occasion restaurants, such as the Inn at Little Washington (about $375 per person on average, including wine, tax and tip), Restaurant Eve (about $315) and Komi ($225, without tax or tip). If you’re an average consumer with a mortgage and children to put through college, reading that paragraph is probably enough to make you break into a sweat.
But the District and its suburbs are not an average place. We’re the seventh-richest city in the United States, with three of the top five wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. There is definitely an audience for these expensive restaurants. It just might not be you.
Maybe it was Onwuachi’s brush with fame as a “Top Chef” contestant. Maybe it was his age — 26 — coupled with the fact that it will be his first restaurant, after an externship at Per Se and a line-cook gig at Eleven Madison Park, leading some critics to complain that he hasn’t paid the dues that justify his prices. Maybe it was that the restaurant is in the heart of recently gentrified Shaw. Or maybe it was that people didn’t understand a fancy restaurant’s costs — not just the king crab flown in from Norway and the hamachi flown in from Japan, but also the cost of rent and heat and the health insurance he’s providing employees.
“This isn’t just something we wrote on a napkin at a bar, $185,” Onwuachi said. “It’s a calculated process.”
A restaurant price must encompass food cost, overhead and labor, leaving a little profit. Many restaurants try to keep food costs at 28 to 35 percent, but Onwuachi said his will run between 35 and 40 percent.
“People who think we’re doing it to make money are sorely mistaken,” Vakiner said. “We are cutting ourselves short in the pocketbook to make it work.”
There are intangible factors to consider, too.
“Pricing is an art, it’s not a science,” said Gregg Rapp, a restaurant consultant who specializes in menu profitability. The art is in pricing something so that people will gladly pay for it — and think they got their money’s worth.
Pineapple and Pearls chef-owner Aaron Silverman took other local fine-dining restaurants’ prices into consideration when setting his own. His restaurant was also initially criticized for its price.
“Gut feeling plays a huge part, at least for us,” Silverman said in an email. “We are not interested in making the ‘quick buck.’ . . . Our goal in both restaurants is to charge the least amount while still turning a small profit.”
How can you tell whether or not a restaurant is worth it? Onwuachi bristled at price comparisons between his and other restaurants — although his price is an indication of his ambition. Consider that his tasting menu with wine pairing is about the same number of courses and price as the three-Michelin-starred best restaurant in the world, Osteria Francescana.
“What I’m trying to do is definitely ambitious. I don’t think what I’m trying to charge is ambitious,” said Onwuachi, who noted that he doesn’t equate making money with success. “I think I’m charging what it’s worth based off of the food costs. And I feel that’s fair.”
And some would say that, for people at a certain level of disposable income, $1,000 isn’t a crazy amount to spend on dinner if you view it as an experience, like a weekend getaway or Beyoncé concert tickets.
For diners, tasting menus are all about “the idea of ritual social performance, signaling your worth to others,” said economist Tyler Cowen, who also blogs about ethnic restaurants and frugal dining. Many people in Washington aren’t even footing the bill; they’re taking clients out to dinner and billing their companies. “It’s a competitive use of the funds. I’m not saying it reflects the best social priorities. In terms of the raw supply and demand, I don’t find it shocking.”
The more success these restaurants achieve, the more they will proliferate: “We were asleep as a town, and once you see that someone can do it, you scratch your head and say, ‘Why not me?’ ” Cowen said. “It means D.C. is a town that has come of age, and that should worry us all. Interesting places are always a bit unknown and under the radar.”
Opening a restaurant is risky at any price point, but especially this one. Onwuachi has his work cut out for him.
“His job right now is to build a $2,000 experience that only costs $1,000,” Rapp said.
Zach Hanover, a 27-year-old political admaker and “Top Chef” fan, thinks that’s what he’ll get. He was excited to buy tickets for himself and his girlfriend — $481 total, because they opted out of the pairings — as soon as they went on sale. “I absolutely expect him to live up to Michelin level, because that’s what he’s charging,” Hanover said.
Onwuachi has been mum on the details, preferring to keep the types of dishes he will make and the way the dinner will progress — diners will move throughout the approximately 30-seat restaurant for certain courses— a surprise. But he is confident that guests will be dazzled. Staff members described the care they’re putting into every detail — from the handmade chocolate to the handcrafted Cloud Terre plates to the hand-sawed ice cubes. Olivia Chang, who manages guest relations, said she plans to reach out to everyone who makes a reservation, customizing the experience to their preferences — even to the point where four people at the table could each be getting a different menu. And the 13-course dinner, which also includes a few small bites and a cocktail, will use luxe ingredients.
“You’re going to see caviar, you’re going to see king crab, you’re going to see Wagyu,” Vakiner said.
And they emphasize that the wine pairing, which can double the cost, is optional. Guests who forgo it can choose their own beverages a la carte, whether they want to spend “$5,000 or $50,” Vakiner said. Although other outlets have reported that the tickets are exchangeable but nonrefundable, Onwuachi said refunds have been issued for people who chose the wrong date, or changed their mind about the pairing. And the restaurant plans to volunteer in the community, hosting children from nearby Seaton Elementary School for occasional lunches and teaching them about gardening.
“We realize that we are maybe out of reach for some people that live in this neighborhood, but we want to give back,” Vakiner said.
As for those suggesting that Onwuachi is untested: He’s ready to prove them all wrong.
“As opposed to, ‘He can’t do that because of his experience,’ ” said Onwuachi, they should be saying, “‘Look at what he already has done with this amount of experience. What will he do next?’ ”