10/14/2019

Why is it so expensive to dine out in San Francisco?

Didn’t this used to be cheaper, you ask your spouse as you flatten out the receipt to examine the pale gray figures near the bottom. Looking up from the menu, your dinner date exclaims: When did a plate of pasta start costing $28?

It’s a curious time for diners in the Bay Area — we have always prided ourselves on our affordable neighborhood restaurants. “Yeah, you could get an amazing meal in New York if you want to spend the money,” we’d tell each other, half smug and half apologetic, “but here we eat well every day.”

In the past five years, we’ve stopped looking to New York. The economic boom has funneled new wealth into dining rooms around the area, and new restaurants — great restaurants, complicated and beautiful restaurants — are appearing at the rate of Beyonce thinkpieces. Last year Bon Appetit magazine named San Francisco “the best food city in America right now,” and Eater’s national critic Bill Addison called the Bay Area the country’s “top fine dining destination.” According to a January 2016 report from market research firm First Data, restaurant sales in San Francisco grew 6.6 percent in 2015, almost twice as fast as in New York.

At the same time, San Francisco has passed more laws than any other major city to improve the lives of low-wage workers such as dishwashers, bussers, line cooks and waiters; Berkeley, Oakland and other Bay Area cities are not far behind.

Our success on all these fronts now comes with a cost, though — one that could reshape the way we approach dining out in the Bay Area.

How much more expensive is dining out becoming? To get a sense, The Chronicle examined 20 years’ worth of menus from restaurants that hold steady spots on the annual Michael Bauer’s Top 100 Restaurants list.` After tracking 22 signature dishes or prix-fixe menus from 14 restaurants, we found that prices have risen, on average, 26 percent since 2010 and 52 percent since 2005 — up 7.5 percent in the last year alone.

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