There was a time when people asked me for restaurant recommendations. Now, everyone just wants to talk about how expensive it’s become to go out. And look, prices are going up everywhere for everything. So let’s talk about burgers. Burgers served at the kind of restaurants that also sell whole branzino for $50. Destination-worthy burgers that once might have cost $15 or even $25. They now cost much more, and, as a result, they are a useful way to look at the perilous state of restaurant economics.
Take the legendary Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern, which currently costs $38. That’s $2 more than it was a year ago and $1 more than the restaurant’s arctic char “à la Grenobloise.” After tax and the standard 20 percent tip, you’re going to spend nearly $50 to eat that burger.
Ignacio Mattos’s tidy burger at Corner Bar is $24 — not bad considering it’s served on a doily, but then you realize it’s another $13 for an order of fries. Mattos’s other famous burger, topped (appealingly) with Gorgonzola and a jam of caramelized radicchio at Altro Paradiso, is $28 before tip and tax ($36.57 after), but the patate fritte are included.
The double-pattied, brioche-bunned affair at Au Cheval, which as you probably know Bon Appétit once hailed as the best burger in America, is $20.95. If you want bacon, it’s an extra $6.95. An oozy “farm egg,” which is practically required if you plan on Instagramming your order, will set you back another $2.95. All in, plus an $11.95 order of fries: That’s a taxed-and-tipped total of $56.
These are not outliers. All around town, the amount you will pay for a hamburger (with service and sales tax) has risen: $40.50 at the original Emily; it’s $32.66 for the “grass-fed and finished” cheeseburger at Diner; $33.97 at the Dutch; and $39.19 for the Raoul’s “au poivre” bar burger — a conspicuous uptick from the $24.80 it would have cost when the late Josh Ozersky called it “the must-have burger of 2014.” In Queens, the $23.50 double cheeseburger at Rolo’s almost sounds like a bargain, though please note that optional “coppa bacon” will push the taxed-tipped total to $27.43.
Of course there are less expensive burgers available. At the Market Line stand Mighties, prices for a smashburger start at $8. On MacDougal Street, literal steps from Minetta Tavern, 7th Street Burger’s double stack sports a $9.50 sticker price. And it seems like nobody in New York is ever more than 15 minutes away from a Shake Shack. All fine burgers, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to relax in a comfortable seat and order from a kind server or bartender. Look at any one of these entrée burgers, and the crushing demands of market forces become plain to see.
In 2019, chef Jae Lee asked $18 for his “legendary burger” at Nowon, two patties topped with American cheese and kimchee mayo. It remains his best-selling item, but now it’s $20 (real price: $26.12), or there’s a $25 dry-aged model, plus one topped with truffles for $30, with margins so small Lee considers it a loss leader. “I wish I could still charge $18,” he says. “Costs were rising before the pandemic, and it really hasn’t stopped.” And, he cautions, “it’s not just ingredients. It’s garbage pickup. ConEd has gone up. Our rent has gone up. We can’t hire cooks at $17 an hour anymore.”
That rising labor cost, Lee says, and not necessarily the high price of beef or buns, is putting the biggest squeeze on operators who are already getting pinched everywhere else. In 2019, Lee’s labor-cost percentage — the amount spent on labor measured against total sales — was 36. This year, that number is 40 percent. At the same time, his food costs, measured against total food sales, have risen from 23 percent to 26 percent. “Taking everything into account,” he says, “something has to give — as much as we want to keep the food prices fair and affordable, at whose cost is that?”
Higher prices don’t directly translate to more profit, either. “Even the restaurants that have gotten close to their pre-pandemic sales, the margins are smaller because their costs have gone up so much,” says Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group for the city’s bars, restaurants, and clubs. “I think there’s going to be a sustained period where food prices remain high and put pressure on various restaurants,” he says. On top of the higher costs, he points out, many restaurants are paying off debt that was accrued during the pandemic.
All told, the burgers, even those inching toward $50, are not “too” expensive. They are instead bellwethers for the new normal of New York dining, and these prices are, it’s worth noting, not without precedent. Daniel Boulud practically invented the luxury-burger segment in 2001, when he debuted a $27 creation filled with foie gras and braised short ribs at his midtown restaurant DB Bistro Moderne. That price may look quaint by today’s standards, but when adjusted for inflation, it’s the equivalent of charging $45.28 in 2022 — a higher sticker price than anything else on the market today.