You think you know, but you don’t know. And you never will – Jim Mora
He and She Said:
The incredibly quotable Jim Mora was talking about football, but this truth applies vividly to the received wisdom about the cost of dining out. We posted a rather animated rant recently about the particular disdain one of us has for chain restaurants or, perhaps more accurately, the Casual Dining segment represented by venues like Applebee’s, Olive Garden, and the like. We won’t rehash those arguments here, but they inspired a passionate counterpoint by one of our readers. Among other objections, he voiced these:
chains, while maybe low denominator in taste (according to your buds), are consistent, cheaper (particularly compared to the NOLA examples you usually favor), quicker, prepared to handle the varied tastes of a family and more diverse
Put yourself in the role of most American families…your spouse and kids are hungry, you just got off your second job (or your shift) and you just happened to come across an extra $60 after paying your bills. Where can you take the family, get a full meal (entree, veggies, salad), maybe a beer for you and wifey, that has reliable service, food your kids will eat (not all can be tricked into enjoying goose liver) and can deliver all that in a timely, inexpensive manner so the family doesn’t go stir crazy, without reservations?
Fair criticism? Perhaps. As we thought about it, we realized we didn’t know whether he was right or wrong. We write nearly five days per week, much of it about food, almost all of it about New Orleans, and we weren’t entirely sure.
One thing is inescapable: this is what the Casual Dining industry wants us to think, and they spend a great deal of money to ensure we do. But what’s the reality? So we were intrigued enough to do the heavy lifting. Here’s what you might not know about Casual Dining and local restaurants in New Orleans:
2 for $20 advertised specials? ‘Classic loss leader pricing strategy,’ according to pricing consultant Leslie Kerr. ‘Once folks show up, they’re hoping there’s a subset who decide…I’ll just get a regular entree.’ Elementary marketing, but the 2 for $20 mantra gets stuck in our head as the basis for comparison.
The actual average Casual Dining entree price in 2010? $13.88, up from $12.98 in 2009 (Source: Intellaprice)
Appetizers? The icing on the margin cake for Casual Dining. An explicit tool to increase the average check.
Is that evil? Of course not. Appetizers raise the per-check average at local restaurants just as effectively. The point is that if you want to dine on the cheap, have a strategy. Skip the apps or share them.
So is it really cheaper to eat in those chains? Resoundingly, categorically, the answer is no. Don’t buy the marketing hype and you’ll do just fine. We’ve done the number crunching, and here’s where you can eat local and eat cheaper than those places. For the sake of simplicity, we’ve ignored lunch. Here is a road map of cheap dinner in New Orleans, and none of the exit signs say Olive Garden or Chili’s:
Mona Lisa, 1212 Royal, French Quarter. A huge traditional Italian menu. What kid doesn’t eat pasta? Average entree price? $13.44 Or, go cheaper by sharing a pizza. A 14 inch for $16.40. How’s that, Olive Garden?
Lebanon, 1500 South Carrollton, Riverbend. Consistently great Middle Eastern food. Another large menu and an average entree of $13.22. We often share items here. Our typical dinner for two: $23 including tax. And they’re BYOB. Let the kids learn about one of the great cuisines in the world.
Liuzza’s 3636 Bienville, Mid City. Classic New Orleans neighborhood seafood/Italian full of local color. Cash only, but you won’t need much at an average entree price of $11.28. Beer and drinks for the kids in frozen glasses plus the legendary Frenchuletta. And you’re going to Applebee’s why, exactly?
Casamento’s 4330 Magazine Street, Uptown. A legendary New Orleans seafood restaurant as old school as it gets, famous for their Oyster Loaf. Average entree? A ridiculous $8.98. And two doors down from the cheapest cocktails in New Orleans at Miss Mae’s. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Red Lobster.
Frankie and Johnny’s, 321 Arabella, Uptown. Another classic neighborhood joint offering that very NOLA seafood/Italian combination. Sensing a trend here? Average entree? $11.58, and there’s a kid’s menu. Too expensive? Hardly.
Felipe’s. 6215 South Miro and 301 South Peters. So you really think you need to go to Chili’s? How about local Mexican food at $9.17 per average entree? The Super Burrito alone might fill you for two days. And sangria, which is always a bonus.
The Praline Connection, 542 Frenchmen in the Marigny Triangle. Soul food: Red beans and rice, stuffed bell-pepper, meat loaf, and stewed chicken, all at an average entree price of $13.10. So cheap you’ll have money left over after dinner to take little Johnny to get a tattoo.
Joey K’s, 3001 Magazine Street, Garden District. In case you were wondering, it’s not all high-rent in the Garden District. At $12.11 per entree, this joint is the obvious choice for blue-blood on a budget. With the money you save, take the kids for something sweet at Sucre after dinner.
Boucherie, 8115 Jeannette, Riverbend. One of the best restaurants in New Orleans at any price. Here’s our detailed review. Average entree? $12.10. If you go to a chain before you go here, you need your head examined.
Lola, 3312 Esplanade Ave, Esplanade Ridge. No, this little place doesn’t make the cut from the entree perspective, but the incredible Paella is built to share. Vegetable, meat, seafood, or combination give you plenty of options.
So there you have it. There are others, of course, but these are some great examples. The next time someone states the obvious ‘fact’ that those chains are cheaper, challenge them. Bigger advertising budgets don’t equal smaller dinner prices, and now you’ve got the proof. Happy eating!