Noma will be remembered as one of the most innovative, influential, and celebrated restaurants of its time. At the same time, however, Noma’s legacy will be complicated by revelations (some of which, to be fair, were more “poorly kept secrets”) of the unforgiving environment in which employees worked, the restaurant’s reliance on unpaid labor in its heyday and, not six months after committing to paying its entire staff, the announcement of its impending closure.
That suggestion from chef René Redzepi – that paying everyone in his employ while collecting at least $600 per guest is unworkable – combined with a variety of economic factors impacting the American rank-and-file – inflation, rising interest rates, increased layoffs, particularly among the white collar set – does, in fact, raise the question of viability. That question, however, isn’t so whether restaurants charging top dollar (or, in Noma’s case, Kroner) are pulling in enough cash, but just how truly necessary it is for a couple to shell out $1,200+ for a single meal, no matter how transcendent, or how special the occasion.
The Reachable Stars
Obviously, legions of well-heeled food enthusiasts who’ve made Noma and its ilk landmarks in the culinary world aren’t suddenly going to retire to strip mall-based casual dining. Fortunately for all involved, there are mind-blowing meals to be had at sub-jaw-dropping prices. Now, if you’re a “stickler for the star”, the herd thins out quite quickly. This is doubly true if New York, L.A., Washington D.C. Chicago, Miami or the San Francisco Bay area – where more than 88% of US-based Michelin restaurants are located – aren’t easily accessible to you.
That being said, even in the rarified air of Michelin-Star, options, if not “aboud”, at least exist. According to the Michelin Guide, of 221 1-, 2- or 3 Michelin-Star restaurants currently operating in the United States, three qualify as “a moderate spend” – though it must be said that others, namely San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions, could also qualify:
- Bell’s, a French-Californian gem in Los Alamos, just up the coast from Santa Barbara. Bell’s offers a lunch menu packed with inventive creations (for instance, the Bánh Oui, a ham- and rabbit liver-centric take on the classic Vietnamese Bánh Mi sandwich) and timeless classics (steak frites, moules frites, steak tartare), all (assuming you can do without caviar) under $30. For dinner, meanwhile, the $90-per-head menu includes for each diner: salad, freshly baked bread and Santa Barbara sea urchin, along with two courses and dessert – all of which can be paired with selections from a wine list stacked with sub-$75 options.
- There’s also chef Cosme Aguilar’s Casa Enrique, a New York restaurant serving up outstanding southern Mexican cuisine, at prices that won’t leave you feeling the habañero burn. At any other restaurant of this quality, from a chef of this renown, in this city, the menu’s signature dish (braised Colorado lamb shank) is a virtual lock to set you back more than $42.
- Finally, there’s Tail Up Goat, in Washington DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. At this contemporary Mediterranean-Caribbean restaurant, guests can map their course through a $98 four-course menu (though, if you’d like ricotta, brown butter, white truffle ravioli, it’s an extra $52). Admittedly, the wine pairings of $75 (“Audrey’s”) or $125 (“Bill’s”) are hardly “cheap”. However, simply ordering a couple of glasses from the intriguing and diverse wine list (current theme: ”Winter in the Balkans”) alongside dinner will keep your tab under control.
Note that, in addition to the tax, all bills at Bell’s and Tail Up Goat have, respectively, a 20% and 22% service fee added. Both restaurants stress on their websites that “the entirety of these charges is… 100% is distributed to all non-management employees in the form of wages and benefits.”
Beyond the Glow of “the Star”
Thankfully, there are far, far more than 221 spots in the U.S. at which to enjoy a phenomenal meal. A fair few of them probably ought to be on your bucket list. However, if you’re in the market for something a bit more swanky than the (by all accounts exceptional) Dog House in New Castle, Delaware, or Tia Sophia’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, or The Coop in Gillette, Wyoming, price points at many of these life-changing eateries aren’t far off of those at their Michelin-starred brethren.
Every bit as thankful and encouraging is the growing (at least seemingly not shrinking) category of affordable top-tier restaurants across the U.S., including, but by no means limited to:
- The sustainable, locally-sourced, butcher shop-adjacent Blackbelly in Boulder, Colorado, which is run by Top Chef Season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg.
- Des Moines, Iowa’s Harbinger, run by seven-time James Beard “Best Chef: Midwest” nominee Joe Tripp, which offers up southeast Asia-inspired small plates.
- The long-standing (since 1893!) world-famous, seven-time James Beard Award-winning Commander’s Palace in New Orleans’ Garden District, offers guests a three-course menu (soup/salad, seafood or quail, and dessert) for under $45.
- James Beard winner Ann Kim’s Young Joni in Northeast Minneapolis, which I can personally attest serves up truly spectacular pizzas from its wood-firing oven.
- Blue Sushi Sake Grill, sustainably serves up classic sushi and Asian-inspired cold and hot plates and a vibrant atmosphere in its beautifully designed Westlake, Ohio space.
The Last Word
Though it’s preparing for a facelift, fine dining is not going away. After all, the food-obsessed among us aren’t suddenly going to find another (safe) outlet for our visceral cravings. At the same time, “value for money” is a more prominent part of the equation than it’s been in some time. Fortunately, no matter where you are in the United States, outstanding restaurants representing this “new face of fine dining” is within reach.