We dined out less this year — but it wasn’t just about the price

A hand giving a black restaurant bill holder to another hand.
It was a year we ate in extremes. | Getty Images

The shifting value of going out to eat.

2023 was a year of extremes in eating: We went out to buzzy restaurants with the flamboyant ambience of nightclubs — or we sat at home, scrounging up two olives and a tortilla chip for a girl dinner. More often, it was the latter.

As the dust settles around a turbulent couple of years of being stuck at home or stuck in outdoor dining bubbles, it’s clear that something has changed in dine-out culture. There are no longer Covid lockdowns or social-distancing rules restricting businesses and patrons, and other activities — like air travel and concerts — have either fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels or even surpassed them. Overall, consumer spending is strong. But we’re still dining out less than we used to.

And while we are going out to eat less (according to location analytics firm Placer.ai, visits to sit-down restaurants this past quarter were down nearly 5 percent year over year), when we do eat out, experts told Vox, we’re flocking to the hottest of fine-dining spots that have gone viral online. The spontaneity of a dinner at a new Neapolitan pizzeria or ramen shop several times a week is gone; this year, dining out became rarefied.

Ballooning bills at restaurants may have pushed us in these wildly divergent directions. People spent more on restaurants this year even as visits fell because of the rising prices of everything from ingredients (whether it’s meat, sugar, or butter) to labor. Amid the grousing about the cost of eating out, however, came a personal reevaluation of what we want out of a visit to a restaurant — what we get out of the experience and how much that’s truly worth.

The state of dining out, by the numbers

To be clear, there hasn’t been an exodus from restaurants, exactly, but the anticipated rebound from the pandemic is stalling.

We still left our homes in search of convenient food. Visits to fast food joints, fast casual places (think Cava or Chipotle), and specialty coffee stores — places where takeout remains a popular option — saw increased traffic most of this year compared to 2022. Late-night Taco Bell runs were way up. But anywhere you’d sit down to eat and tip afterward drew sparser crowds.

The drop-off is steeper depending on where you look. It’s been a “terrible year” for restaurants in San Francisco, says Soleil Ho, a food writer and cultural critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. Local reports note empty dining rooms and waves of restaurant closures. “It’s actually a sort of hangover from the pandemic,” Ho says. Restaurants in the Bay Area, home to one of the hottest food cities of the 2010s, have been among those struggling hardest in the country to regain their pre-Covid bustle. Tech layoffs have hit the region hard, tightening belts and clearing out the once-busy downtown landscape. In a city like San Francisco, that leaves its mark on the dining scene.

“When I was a restaurant critic, I would go out to these Michelin-starred restaurants on the weekdays,” Ho says. “A lot of times, the people around me were in tech — they were just there casually, spending $300 a meal, just to hang out and look at their phone and eat a tasting menu.” These tech workers were the backbone of the city’s fine-dining scene, and Ho sees them much less now.

Khushbu Shah, contributing editor at Food & Wine and the Los Angeles-based author of the food newsletter Tap Is Fine, echoes the sentiment. Shah says the restaurant industry there is starting to feel “some of the reverberations of the pandemic now,” years out from lockdowns, in part because the Covid aid for businesses and customers has finally run out.

It’s unclear how many restaurants closed for good because of Covid, though a Washington Post estimate last year said that there were 72,700 more restaurant and bar closures than normal in 2020. Restaurant openings rose this year, but there are still fewer places to eat than before.

According to OpenTable, the restaurant reservation site, there were 19 percent fewer diners in 2021 than there were pre-pandemic. In 2022, restaurants rebounded but were still nearly 4 percent short. This year, that number dipped an additional percentage point. Almost three years later, people still aren’t back in the swing of a beloved social pastime.

Are restaurant prices the only problem?

Maybe the answer to the decline in going to restaurants is mind-numbingly simple: They got too expensive. Since January 2020, Bloomberg found, menu prices have soared by a hard-to-stomach 24 percent. But it’s likely that there’s something more than price at play. There’s a kind of fatigue setting in as wait times for walk-ins at the most popular restaurants grow and getting a reservation has become a competitive sport. If people are eating out less because of the expense, why does it feel like even more of a rat race to get a table?

Inflation has walloped restaurants; just look at any breakdown of why a particular menu item costs as much as it does now, whether it’s a $32 lobster roll or a $30 shrimp cocktail. Certain staple ingredients have soared in price, but when the charge for particular dishes double or triple, particularly in fine dining, it’s hard to see the increase as anything but opportunistic. New York-based food critic Ryan Sutton, who writes The LO Times newsletter, has been tracking some of the most egregious increases.

“I think to a certain extent, you’re seeing people getting priced out of restaurants, even though you aren’t necessarily seeing those restaurants do poorly,” Sutton tells Vox.

In a metropolis like New York, there’s a hefty segment of wealthy people who can afford a four-figure dinner. There are still crowded restaurants and long lines. Meanwhile, while inflation has slowed and the unemployment rate is almost as low as it was in 2019, the onslaught of layoffs that received so much attention last year have not only continued, but intensified. The people absent from the dining scene because they’re tightening their belts on luxuries, particularly as pandemic relief has been fully depleted and student loan payments have returned, are by nature invisible.

Even people who could afford to splurge on more meals out may be struggling to adjust to the “psychological aspect” of paying $25 for a martini, says Sutton. It’s a turn-off because higher prices happened quickly — they arrived like a burst of flame, not a frog being slowly boiled in a pot.

At the same time, in Austin — the Texas capital sometimes called Silicon Valley 2.0 — the well-paying tech industry has been fueling the growth of high-end restaurants with broad appeal, such as restaurants serving, say, New American cuisine with pricey burgers. Or the latest craze in the city, according to Eater Austin editor Nadia Chaudhury: omakase, an ultra-upscale style of Japanese dining where an entire multi-course meal is curated and prepared in front of you by the chef. It can run hundreds of dollars per person.

It’s a sign of how people’s sense of value has been jostled. It’s go big or go home. When people do go out to eat, they’re frequently seeking out the most viral (like Bad Roman), most feted (like Tatiana), even the most expensive places. Yelp reports that interest in four-dollar-sign restaurants on its platform, which indicates the priciest options, has been consistently rising since the pandemic.

Eating out, as a result, has become an exhausting hustle, requiring cunning and perseverance. For places diners really want to get into, there are a raft of how-to guides and people are even using under-the-table group chats to bypass the usual reservation system. Sutton recalls that at Sailor, a new bistro in Brooklyn, he was recently quoted a four-hour wait. The phenomenon has spawned a modern-day version of the old Yogi Berra joke: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

“Either a restaurant has lines out the door or they’re begging people to come in,” says Shah. Those in-between spots — the restaurant doing just okay — are fewer and farther between.

In some ways, it has to do with capital. The omakase-style restaurant is the perfect type of ritzy place to attract investors and big restaurant groups, and a perfect example of dining out becoming increasingly bifurcated into two extremes. The restaurants that succeed really succeed and tend to be backed by investors. The ones that struggle really struggle.

There’s no dearth of creative, passionate people wanting to open a unique place to dine, but it’s not enough to be talented if you don’t have ample capital. In 2020, the number of independent restaurants — those that have just one or two locations — fell by 8 percent. It recovered just 1 percent last year. Rising rent has left independent restaurants struggling to keep their doors open. Meanwhile, chain restaurants have boomed, flattening the diversity of the dining scene.

The experience of dining out is also more likely to be treated as entertainment now, says Sutton — a bombastic experience where there’s loud music, wild lighting, or mixologist-crafted jello shots. But if a restaurant is an entertainment venue, few other options in the category have seen as much price inflation in the past few years. “You do not see theater ticket prices doubling,” notes Sutton, though they have indeed gone up.

It makes sense, then, that people are more precious about where they eat. If a restaurant experience isn’t remarkable, is it worth the astronomical price and the hassle of getting in?

For me, personally, 2023 has been the year of casual dinner parties — get-togethers of four or five people, where we eat a home-cooked meal and there’s no 90-minute time limit before we have to leave the table.

“If you feel like going out to eat tonight, and you go to a place and there’s an hour wait, you’re gonna get frustrated, right?” says Chaudhury. “So it’s just easier to go to a friend’s house, honestly.”

The new normal — or a return to reality?

The fact is, going to restaurants peaked more than two decades ago. In 2000, the average American went out to eat about 216 times. By 2018, it was down to 185 times. It raises the question of whether eating out less in 2023 was part of a long slide back to normal rather than a failure to return to the status quo.

Restaurants are old, but dining out only became more affordable for the average American in relatively recent decades — a New York Times piece from 1985 reports on a “dramatic change in the eating habits of many Americans” who increasingly sought out restaurants. Around this time, the “foodie” was born.

Through the decades, the state of the restaurant industry has only rarely not appeared to be touch-and-go. In the mid to late 2010s, there were murmurs of a restaurant bubble poised to pop at any moment. Food journalist Kevin Alexander documented how scores of independent establishments were shuttering, unable to keep up with rising rent, labor costs, and “a pandemic of similar restaurants” making it hard to stand out from the pack. In short, it was too hard to run a restaurant, and it was too hard working in a restaurant. “One of the unintended consequences of the Golden Age of Restaurants was unreasonable customer expectations for virtually every eating experience,” Alexander wrote.

Those 2016 observations may have been a harbinger of what was to come, right down to the word “pandemic.” Among the common reasons people give for why they eat out less now is the amorphous feeling that there’s been a decline in service quality, one Pymnts survey confirms — a further degradation of the experience for which they’re paying much more in 2023. And they may not be wrong: There are fewer people working in restaurants today than before the pandemic. What we’ve gained instead is a more honest reckoning of what’s on the menu: what it costs to prepare a meal — sometimes multiple courses of it — and have a human serve it to you.

Some of the menu inflation has gone to wage increases for restaurant workers. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median hourly wage in May 2022 for servers (which includes tips) was $14, up from $11 in May 2019, which means a server working 40 hours a week all year would have gone from making about $22,880 to $29,120 before taxes. Meanwhile, the work remains grueling; it’s still dangerous, especially when Covid-19 cases flare back up again periodically. And in the last few years, Americans have become notably worse tippers. According to an annual Bankrate survey, 77 percent said they always tipped at table-service restaurants in 2019. This year, only 65 percent did. Perhaps to combat this and retain staff, many restaurants have added automatic gratuities to checks, further irking some diners.

What we pay for when we dine out isn’t just the sustenance, but an alchemy now most often called “vibes” — the lighting, the decor, the crowd, whatever banter is shared with your server. There’s so much pleasure in being inside a great restaurant, but there’s an undercurrent of discomfort, too. It’s an experience where, for a few hours, another human being is entirely focused on your satisfaction. As in so many service jobs, there’s an inequality of power baked into the interaction, a vibe that has become harder to ignore since 2020. Food and culture writer Alicia Kennedy has summed up this tension as a kind of hostility lurking within hospitality: “One person has to be nice, the other person does not.” This discomfort has always existed, but the difference today is that we name it more explicitly and put a higher price on the labor of tolerating it.

There is something sad about the idea that the restaurant’s presence in our day-to-day lives may be shrinking. The last thing I did before New York locked down was to have dinner at a neighborhood Vietnamese spot. It was elegant and well-known, yet the reservation was a breeze to get, and looking at the bill didn’t feel like a gut punch. After all, the relaxed pleasure of being ensconced elbow to elbow with other people, getting a little full and a little drunk, is almost too gratifying to pin a price on.

And maybe that’s the confusion, the internal debate, we’re seeing play out now. What is dining out worth today? When is it worth that? For many, on most days, when the cost doesn’t meet the threshold — home cooking it is. For others, on certain special occasions, there’s still no better place to enjoy a meal than a popular restaurant. Its value may have even gone up, in recognition of all that a meal out can provide: a break from the mundane, a place to be seen, where someone is always nice to you.

——————————————-
By: Whizy Kim
Title: We dined out less this year — but it wasn’t just about the price
Sourced From: www.vox.com/money/24008141/restaurants-dining-out-price-inflation
Published Date: Fri, 22 Dec 2023 11:00:00 +0000

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I'm a writer for lifestyle publications, and when I'm not crafting stories, you'll find me cherishing moments with my family, including my lovely daughter. My heart also belongs to my pets—Sushi, Snowy, Belle, and Pepper. Besides writing, I enjoy watching movies and exploring new places through travel.