Excess at restaurants is nothing new: having an excuse to eat and drink too much is often kind of the point. And restaurants are of course happy to oblige. There are the multi-course tasting menus, like the $500 Collezione menu at Del Posto, or, for that matter, the $420 option to order one of every single dish on the menu at Alta. But lately, another type of feast has sprung up at restaurants around the country: the kind where you get a bunch of friends together and eat a whole animal.
In New York, Nuela, the Breslin, and DBGB all offer a whole roast suckling pig, while Daisy May's BBQ has a “whole pig” option that will set you back $480 and feed “up to 12”. Meanwhile, Momofuku Ssäm Bar practically pioneered New York's idea of the so-called "large format" meal with its Bo Ssäm, and just last week the restaurant introduced a $140 whole-duck menu option.
The interesting thing about these whole-animal grazing sessions is that they seem to present a scenario where restaurant and diner both come out ahead from an economic standpoint — and a lot of it is because the feasts may have finally given restaurants a legitimate way to charge for reservations.
But first, don't be fooled into thinking that diners win because they'll get economies of scale by ordering so much food. At the Breslin, the pig will set you back $65 per person while a lamb feast is $80: It's not easy spending that kind of money from the à la carte menu. The same is true at DBGB, where a party of eight is very unlikely to spend $495 on food alone, before tax and tip.
From the restaurant's perspective, then, these feasts are fantastic deals on many levels. First of all, they force people to come in large groups — and large groups always drink more than small groups. People are less inhibited, when it comes to drinking, in large parties, and they don't feel that if they drink less they'll save any real money. (They'll just end up paying for everybody else's drinks instead of their own.) So they all just drink more — the highest-margin behavior a restaurant patron can ever engage in.
A whole-animal feast also solves the problem of a kitchen having to coordinate and cook lots of different dishes for large parties: One animal means one dish to cook, and it's a dish that ends up being visually stunning, advertising the restaurant's full capabilities to everyone in the dining room.
In other words, the restaurant is getting more revenue from the food, more revenue from the alcohol, and lots of free marketing, all for less work than it takes to serve a standard large group. It's a no-brainer.
But then, does this mean that these feasts are a bad deal for customers? Not really. To be sure, if the animal comes at a fixed price, then it's worth maxing out the number of people eating it. If you order a $495 pig for “up to 8 guests” but only six people end up being able to make it, then your price per person has already jumped from $62 to $82.
But diners get real value out of these things, too. There's the theater, for starters: Tearing into a whole animal is unique and memorable in a way that yet another restaurant meal probably won't be. Very few of these feasts end up undocumented on some kind of camera or cell phone. Let's not also forget that having eight different people order 24 different courses is not much more fun for the diners than it is for the servers. Taking away the problem of what to order allows the group to relax and have fun, rather than trying to remember who got the linguine.
And of course you're special when you order one of these. You're very likely to be seated at one of the best tables in the house, and you'll probably meet and talk to the chef — you're the guest of honor tonight. Which feels pretty good.
But there's another benefit that can make these feasts even more appealing. At some places, like the Breslin, the feast comes with an extremely special embedded perk — a guaranteed prime-time reservation. At Momofuku's SSsäm and Noodle bars, ordering one of the “large format reservations” doesn't get you a prime-time resy, but it does get you a resy, which is something that's not otherwise available.
Reservations at hot restaurants are something that are nearly always underpriced. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, reservations themselves always have to be free. This doesn't make much sense when you think about it: Clearly a reservation at a hot restaurant at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night has real value — and significantly more value than a reservation at the same restaurant Monday at 5:30 p.m. But the Saturday diners get the same menu, at the same price, as the 5:30 p.m.-on-a-Monday diners, and they don't pay a premium for the reservation itself.
I'm not the first person to realize this: A host of websites has come and gone trying to change this, either with or without the knowledge and consent of the restaurants concerned; none of them have met with much if any success. Next, in Chicago, does charge different prices according to time of day, but the conceit is rendered moot by the fact that they all sell out immediately in any case.
Restaurants do have time-tested ways of monetizing prime-time tables; they're just not particularly democratic. They might refuse those tables to all but celebrities, journalists, or known big spenders, or give privileged access to hotel concierges whom they can count on to fill less desirable time slots.
Which is what makes the premium paid for these feasts worth it. Something like the Chef's Table at the Breslin is an elegantly masked way of being able to buy a much-coveted reservation on the open market. You're ostensibly paying for the food, but in reality, a large part of the four-figure check is going to pay for the fact that you were able to reserve that table in the first place. It's basic economics: Something scarce is going to sell for a premium. And there's only one Chef's Table at the Breslin.