A team of Cornell University researchers this week presented a paper that suggests buffet patrons don’t enjoy the food as much when the menu is priced too low, and instead are more likely to love the meal when it’s twice as expensive. Researchers took responses from 139 patrons of an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet in upstate New York, where the menu price was set at either $4 or $8. The red sauce and the fixins remained the same, however, and several dozen heaping servings of lasagna and breadsticks later, guests were asked to “evaluate the food and the restaurant and rate their first, middle and last taste” of the food using a scale of nine points.
Both groups of patrons dined under similar conditions and ate the same amount of food, but it turns out that those who paid $8 for the buffet rated their meal an average of 11 percent more highly than those who paid $4.
Not only that, but those who paid the lower figure to eat more often copped to feeling like they had overeaten, and they generally “felt more guilt about the meal.” Sad! The perception of value, it seems, actually increased with the price tag. Perhaps this is real reason why dinner for two at Masa with Kobe beef costs a walloping $1,547 and not $39.95.
Jokes aside, while the Cornell study pertains specifically to all-you-can-eat scenarios — “If you’re a consumer and want to eat at a buffet, the best thing to do is eat at the most expensive buffet you can afford,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., who oversaw the study — it’d be interesting to see if the same effect carries over to the consumers of à la carte restaurants and tasting menus.
In a provocative column yesterday, San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer pointed to the increasing appearance of $29 risotto appetizers and $52 rib-eye entrées on menus and wondered what it all might mean for the near future of dining. “At what point does a restaurant become too expensive?” he wrote. In a time when some say it’s increasingly difficult to score a great dinner for two without passing the $200 mark, perhaps research could be undertaken to see if the Cornell study results are at all portable to other realms of dining, and find out at what point, exactly, a truly decent restaurant meal becomes expensive enough.