Chefs turn to prix fixe and tasting menus to combat cost, labor and supply challenges

Both high-end restaurants and more casual concepts are finding some relief in more limited menus with set prices.
Photographs courtesy of the brands

When Dirt Candy reopened in 2021 after its pandemic shutdown, the New York City restaurant nixed all its a la carte options to offer just one five-course tasting menu.

“My food costs changed dramatically, dropping from 26% to 12%,” said Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of the vegetable-focused concept. “I know exactly how much food to order now, the format saves time and labor, and there’s no waste.”

Dinner at Dirt Candy is $95 per person—a good deal for a Michelin-starred restaurant—and Cohen does 90 to 100 covers each night, turning tables twice.

But she’s not the only one leaning into limited menus. Post-COVID, prix fixe formats have proliferated at concepts of many kinds as operators look for ways to deliver a great dining experience at a profit.

In fact, af&co + Carbonate’s 2023 Hospitality Trends Report called out “two-digit tasting menus” as a top trend to watch, noting that that the benefits are manifold: Less expensive tasting menus give chefs a creative outlet while helping them control costs, and customers gain an exciting culinary adventure at a more accessible price.

Maximizing efficiencies and margins

In the past, Cohen offered two tasting menus a night, but ditched the second one with the a la carte options in 2021. And the kitchen no longer tweaks any of its courses to adapt to guests’ special diets or allergies. If someone is allergic to nuts and they’re only used as a garnish, the kitchen will simply omit them from the dish.

“We’re very clear in our reservation policy that we serve only one menu and try catch guests’ allergies and let them know prior to coming into the restaurant,” said Cohen. “For the most part, people are very understanding.”

Dirt Candy used to have a person in the kitchen dedicated to making special dishes for dietary restrictions, but that employee now floats to different stations. “If a team member gets sick or doesn’t show up, that person can take over,” said Cohen. “It makes for less stress and keeps staff from burning out.”

She did raise the price of the tasting menu from $85 to the current $95 per person to cover salaries and rising food costs. But that price guarantees profits.

Cohen and her team are wizards at coaxing the most flavor out of vegetables and plating them beautifully. For fall, Dirt Candy’s tasting menu included Artichokes & Sunchokes, a first course featuring a sunchoke flan, crispy baby artichokes and seaweed caviar that the menu described as “a study in contrasts.”

The menu was rounded out with a mushroom mousse crepe, kale spaghetti with spicy kale sausage, a Thai-inspired stuffed bell pepper and a dessert of whipped grits, caramel apples and mustard green sorbet.

“When you offer an a la carte menu, you’re rolling the dice on how much each customer will spend … people can order just appetizers and share, and then sit at the table for two hours,” said Cohen. “I treat our menu much like a ticket to a Broadway show. Instead of buying a theater seat, diners are renting a table for a couple of hours.”

Ryan Cole, CEO and partner in California’s Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group, was all about efficiency when he opened Trestle in San Francisco eight years ago. The restaurant was small and its location on the cusp of Chinatown was not exactly a fine-dining destination. So, he decided on a three-course prix fixe menu for $35 per person.

“Everyone thought we were crazy, but the format saves labor, space and waste. Plus, volume cures a lot of problems,” said Cole.

Post-pandemic, prix fixe and tasting menu restaurants are popping up all over the Bay Area.

“Other restaurateurs are copying us now,” said Cole. “Post-COVID, you need to have better control over how much money you spend per seat. With an a la carte menu, customers probably spend less.”

Small and mighty

In the front of house, Trestle has only 42 seats, three servers and a manger; there’s no host stand. But the service is fine dining-style, said Cole. And the tiny kitchen fits just three cooks and a chef who expedites orders.

Guests have a choice between two items in each course on the three-course menu, the price of which has been raised to $39 per person since opening. There’s always a soup and salad for the first course, a meat and fish for the second, and one chocolate and one fruit dessert for the third. Customers can also substitute a pasta course for the entree or add it on for another $12.

A recent menu featured Chicory Caesar Salad or Potato & Leek Soup; Red Curry & Rice or Shrimp Cavatelli with cilantro-yuzu pesto; Chile Roasted Black Cod or Seared Bistro Steak with sides; and Coconut Butter Cake or Dark Chocolate Mousse.

“We accommodate food preferences by offering a gluten-free, dairy-free risotto in the pasta section, and either the risotto or pasta is always a vegetarian option,” said Cole. In addition, diners can swap out dessert for an appetizer.

But most customers stick to the structure, which makes it easier to predict what to purchase and prep. “We typically sell 50 of each menu item and prep exactly what we need, so there’s no waste,” said Cole. “For a simple concept, we think things through very thoroughly.”

Supply chain snags or commodity price surges are not a stressor, he says, noting that “if an ingredient gets too expensive or unavailable, we’ll stop using it.” When the cost of eggs recently went up, Trestle took its creme brulee off the dessert rotation.

The restaurant does two table turns a night and can do 80 to 110 covers; dinner for two takes 90 minutes. “As soon as the next guest sits down, we get another $39,” Cole said. Beer and wine is available on a limited list with a low markup—25 whites and 20 reds. “Less choice but better value,” he said.

Trestle is completely booked weeks out, he said, and even if the same customer comes back for another visit seven days later, they won’t get the same menu. “We don’t change everything every day, but we stagger the changes so it looks like a different menu each time,” said Cole.

The model has been so successful that Hi Neighbor converted Oakland restaurant MAMA to a prix fixe menu when Cole and his team were asked to run the Italian eatery post-COVID.

MAMA’s three-course menu is $36.95 for a starter, pasta and dessert, but guests can add an optional entree that serves two. An herb-crusted rack of lamb, for example, is an extra $43 and a roasted artichoke with olive tapenade and Meyer lemon aioli is $29. There’s also the opportunity to add the concept’s signature meatballs for $10 or housemade focaccia for $6.

Adapting an old model to new times

Like Trestle, location and space also prompted Stephen Gillanders to create his new restaurant, Valhalla, around a tasting menu format. Valhalla opened in Chicago’s Time Out Market last fall—putting a sophisticated, upscale restaurant on the second floor of a food hall populated by bustling fast-casual concepts one floor below.

“It’s very unorthodox to have a fully built-out, 58-seat restaurant in a food hall, but I wanted to juxtapose something really different from what was downstairs,” said Gillanders. “One of the best restaurants in the world [Geranium in Copenhagen] is in a soccer stadium.”  

The chef, who also heads up renowned Chicago independents S.K.Y and Apolonia, added that the tasting menu model addresses the reality of the post-COVID restaurant world. “We stopped waiting for customers to come back and are now intentionally operating at 20% fewer covers,” he said. “A tasting menu allows you to isolate food costs, make the most of your human resources and operate more efficiently.”

S.K.Y. and Apolonia now do tasting menus, the same as Valhalla. But Valhalla’s is more elaborate and expensive, with 13 courses for $185 per person—more in line with concepts like The French Laundry and Alinea, but noticeably less pricey.

“It’s a more transparent way of doing business,” said Gillanders. “I recently lowered the price from $195 per person to reflect lower food costs. You can’t do that as easily with a la carte menus.”

Unlike Dirt Candy and Trestle, all three of his restaurants also offer an edited selection of a la carte items. The kitchen at Valhalla sometimes uses the flexibility of the tasting menu to accommodate items that haven’t sold a la carte, such as pork collar.

The limited a la carte menu gives guests a chance to check out the menu without committing to a big tab, Gillanders said.

Selections range from $18 to $48 and repeat a couple of items on the tasting menu to ease labor, along with about eight others in categories such as Snacks & Shares (Warm Eggplant Burrata, for example) and Entrees from the Sea and Land (Grilled Black Bass and Rohan Duck Confit). Customers can sit at the bar and order one or more items with a drink or glass of wine.

“The a la carte menu also provides a chance for diners to come back with more regularity,” said Gillanders. Plus, it’s a way to accommodate people with allergies and eliminate the veto vote, although Valhalla will make adaptations to the tasting menu if needed, he said.

The courses on the tasting menu, such as Black Truffle Hand-Pulled Ramen and Wagyu Arrachera, include luxury ingredients, while others showcase refined technique, including Kombu Cured Fluke and Queen Crab Arroz Caldo. All are skillfully prepared with great attention to presentation.

Yet the model has a better labor-to-revenue ratio. “It requires less labor compared to total revenue collected than an a la carte restaurant,” he said. “I also do an industry night on Sundays where I offer half the courses on the tasting menu for half the price, that’s open to everyone.”

And a tasting menu’s benefits aren’t strictly logistical. “I don’t feel as boxed in and it’s exciting to use more expensive or unusual ingredients and work with small farmers,” said Gillanders. “I have been building a rolodex of ideas for many years and have been itching to cook this way. It gives me more creative leeway as a chef.

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