Americans are hungrier than ever to eat out. Last month, they spent $36.2 billion in restaurants. This year, they are on track to spend $511 billion, a record high. But the most impressive number? $446.
According to the Zagat Survey, that's the price of dinner for one at Masa, the high-priced sushi restaurant in Manhattan's Time Warner Center.
For the second year in a row, Masa tops our list of the Most Expensive Restaurants in the U.S. But proving there's room to grow even at the very top, Masa's prix-fixe menu went from $350 last year to $400 this fall.
A representative explains that the price increase at the 26-seat restaurant was due to a revamped menu, which features rare and expensive delicacies like white truffles. Importing the fish directly from Japan for simple, impeccable dishes helps keep prices high, too.
But even outside New York's rarified food circles, restaurants have been adding new dishes to meet the changing tastes of their clients — and raising prices accordingly.
"There's a myriad of new ingredients available to us these days," says Charles "Chick" Marshall, chairman of Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA), the New York-based trade organization. "I'm a foodie, and half these new ingredients I haven't heard of."
Marshall's own restaurant, Mr. Stox, in Anaheim, Calif., has had to raise prices about 6 percent to 7 percent over the course of 2006 to keep up with the cost of quality ingredients. "We're seeking out smaller producers with better products, and with that comes a higher expense of preparing them in the kitchen. It creates an upward pressure on menu prices. Fortunately, the economy is strong," Marshall says.
One out of every two dollars spent on food in the United States goes into the registers at restaurants, according to Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C.
"As far back as 1955, just 25 percent of the food dollar was allocated toward food away from home. In half a century it's doubled," he says. "Within the next decade, we'll break the 50 percent threshold, and that will be a historic point for the industry. It quite vividly demonstrates how restaurants have become essential components in consumer life."
Essential, maybe. Extravagant, definitely — at least at the top.
At Alinea in Chicago, diners feast on 12 ($125) or 24 ($175) course menus that feature small, inventive dishes like bison served on a glass tube holding smoldering cinnamon sticks. Grant Achatz, who opened Alinea in 2005, trained with Thomas Keller and inherited his appreciation for culinary innovation. Philadelphia'sLe Bec-Fin, where diners eat in formal splendor, has added a filet of Japanese suzuki fish to the menu ($36), and newcomer to the list Alex, the restaurant at Steve Wynn's Wynn Las Vegas, wows diners with hearty pork and fish dishes served in an opulent, red-curtained dining room.
Once again, we teamed up with New York-based restaurant review guide Zagat Survey to compile a list of the priciest places to dine in the 50 states (for our international ranking, see " World's Most Expensive Restaurants 2006 "). Zagat determined the most expensive restaurants in the U.S. and provided their surveyors' estimates of the cost of dinner with one drink and tip. One caveat: the price estimates do not reflect wine or more than one entrée, so they may be lower here than they would be in person.
On this year's list, the average price for dinner for one at the top ten restaurants is $174 — up from $146 last year. And Masa wasn't the only one to bump up the bill. At French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller's Napa Valley culinary temple, the price for dinner per person went from $135 to $254, from fourth place to second on our list. And the Relais & Chateaux Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, famous for its soft-shell crab tempura and diver scallops, went from $129 to $141, just enough to keep it at fifth place in the rankings.
Bon appétit. As for the bill, don't say we didn't warn you.
© 2012 Forbes.com