Fine dining in a city like Melbourne is becoming more common and indeed more popular every day. But is the money you’re shelling out paying for the pearl, or a cheap imitation? For those without an excess of wealth, fine dining was once a pastime of special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, or a particularly important business dinner. With Melbourne’s food culture on the rise, the habit of enjoying a fancy meal is becoming socially acceptable and celebrated by more and more people, affordability aside. It’s not that the cost has changed, or become more accessible, it’s more that the idea and the experience has become more desirable or trendy.
With this increased demand, there is also a rise in restaurants claiming to deliver a ‘fine dining’ experience. This includes the hefty price tag associated with such luxury. But does the term fine dining justify the extra cost? It seems that across Melbourne, more and more restaurants are charging an exorbitant fee for producing food that looks fantastic, but in reality is rather lacking in flavour. Likewise, service is dramatically varied from place to place. The unchanging element is simply this; price. Because these places tell you they are offering an experience associated with luxury, you are therefore expected to pay the cost, regardless of your enjoyment or approval of said experience.
When the food is impressive both in taste and presentation and the service without fault, then the money becomes a non-issue. Most people who enjoy dining out are comfortable paying a premium for an experience they will remember fondly and would gladly repeat. When it’s not okay is when any of these three main factors are lacking. Then, because of the pure attachment we have to our wallets, the rest of the experience turns sour. Diners are left thinking, ‘I’m paying for someone to be rude to me?’ or, ‘I ate better than this last week for half the price.’ It instantly alerts them to the money they are wasting, and depending on the level of inadequacy, can result in some very dissatisfied customers. The same works in reverse. For a restaurant that perhaps has below average service, a customer is more willing to forgive if the price is low. Or, in the best cases, they are much more impressed with the experience, as it wasn’t expected at the low price they paid. The customer feels like they’ve received value for money, and will happily return.
So when is it okay to charge a premium? In some cases, mere popularity and fame seems to be a favoured reason. This is not okay if satisfaction can’t be delivered. It’s simply greedy and the longevity of the restaurant is doomed. It’s understandable to charge a premium if you have a well renowned or successful chef, and high quality and/or rare produce, but it’s when the truffle dish costs the same as the chicken pasta that your patrons are going to start to feel bitter.
A perfect example of how, as a diner, you can’t help but compare experiences when cost is a factor, would be (excuse the out of town reference) in Surfers Paradise, Queensland. Awarded a chef’s hat, Absynthe is a contemporary French fusion restaurant. Plushly furnished and elegantly presented, it maintains such an air of excellence that as a customer you desperately want the food to live up to the way the restaurant talks it up. Unfortunately, by the stage you get to actually tasting, everything from the prices to the service have already coloured your opinion. The food is nice, and suitable to some palâtes, but unless one has more money than sense, Absynthe is the typical example of an overpriced experience, clinging to past success. If you look the restaurant up on trip advisor, you’ll find that their reviews are divided into two sections, ‘Excellent’ and ‘Terrible’. It clearly seems to be a situation where you either love it or you hate it, and this is a scale that would easily be tipped by the size of your wallet.
Two kilometres down the road on Chevron Island however, is an unobtrusive — locally recommended — modern Australian tapas bar/restaurant called Samphire Bites*. Featuring chef James Brady, who previously worked at Vue de Monde & 3 Station Pier (trained in London at Lanesborough Hotel under Paul Gayler, with experience in France, Spain & Greece also). This is someone that’s been exposed to very highly ticketed fine dining, yet the experience at Samphire Bites was a casual, laid back one. The food looked and tasted fantastic, and it was a clear favourite of the locals, bursting from the seams all night.
Understandably, at the end of the day it comes down to personal tastes. Obviously there is a market for these high-priced restaurants, even if it may be hard to understand why this is so. It’s important to decide for yourself what you’re prepared to pay, and then put the money factor aside. An expensive dining endeavour can definitely be worth it, but that’s a risk you have to be prepared to take. Check review sites, talk to people who’ve been and who you know share your tastes. If you’re not willing to part with your hard-earned cash, then find an alternative solution. Otherwise everything you taste will be influenced by a poorly made decision, whether or not it’s culinary genius.
*If you’re in Surfers, head down to Samphire Bites for a delightful culinary experience, but get there early, they fill up fast! – http://www.samphirebites.com.au