When you see “market price” on a menu, you know the item is going to be expensive, no matter what the so-called market says. Traditionally, restaurants employ the listing to denote fresh-caught seafood—the cost of a fish or lobster can be wildly variable based on the size, the season, and other factors affecting supply.
“At their cheapest, lobsters are $5 to $6 a pound,” says Ian MacGregor, Manhattan’s largest wholesaler of lobster. “But they can go upwards of $14 a pound.”
Increasingly, though, market prices are becoming popular with chefs who want to lend a glint of exclusivity to cuts of steak, barbecued ribs, or even wild boar. It’s also a way to avoid sticker shock; the cost of Wagyu beef, which is veiled by a market price label at restaurants from New York to Chicago to Miami, hit an all-time high this spring.
“I tell clients that if having an expensive item bumps up the range of their prices too high, then they should list that dish as MP,” says Steven Hall, co-founder of Hall PR, a global restaurant public-relations company. If the average dish price on a menu climbs too high, it can turn off potential customers looking up listings at Zagat, Yelp, or similar sites.
The phenomenon of MP mission creep is visible across the U.S. At La Barbecue in Austin, where pork ribs go for $17.98 a pound, the beef ribs are MP. Harvest, in Louisville, offers an MP rib-eye, and Chicago Cut Steakhouse, in the Windy City, serves an MP bone-in fillet. Exotic meat restaurant Clydz, in New Brunswick, N.J., has a game tasting menu—it has included venison and antelope—that varies in price.
If you’re not hunting or fishing to get your dish, market pricing is generally met with skepticism by many in the restaurant business. “I don’t understand it,” says Billy Durney, owner of the warehouse-size barbecue destination Hometown in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I buy about 10,000 pounds of meat a week, and I don’t see enough fluctuations to use it. Our purveyors are always informing us about changes.”
“Outside of seafood, it is totally bogus,” says Trey Foshee, chef and co-owner of George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, Calif. Even seafood prices don’t change too quickly, he says. “Local yellowtail goes from $3 pound in the summer to $6 pound in the winter, depending on where the fish are coming from. All summer you might see a variance of 50 cents a pound—that would not make me change my menu price.”
Last year the price of meals away from home—that is, at restaurants—rose 2.6 percent, even as the cost of ingredients fell 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And yet, market price dishes are proliferating. The glitzy New York restaurant Beatrice Inn has become a conversational flash point. When food journalist Ryan Sutton (formerly Bloomberg’s restaurant critic) recently reviewed the meat-centric West Village dining room for Eater.com, he described a menu with so many MP dishes it looked as if it had been “redacted by the FBI.”
One dish with no price tag particularly stood out: the 160-day-aged, whiskey-doused tomahawk rib-eye. A server will tell you the cost is currently $14 an ounce: In other words, $700 for a 3-pound steak, including the bone. “Some are 28 ounces, some are 60 ounces, and everything in-between,” says Beatrice Inn chef-owner Angie Mar. “But bottom line we cut the steaks to order.” For some diners, it’s a badge of honor to order a slab of beef that, with tax and tip, almost breaks the four-figure barrier. But it can be a cruel trick for those too shy to inquire what the price actually is.
The ingredient that perhaps best exemplifies the true meaning of market price is live lobster. The crustaceans vary in size and can’t usually be divided among different tables, the way a big cut of beef can. Even MacGregor, the lobster wholesaler, who also owns the Cull & Pistol Oyster Bar in Chelsea, lists prices for his whole lobsters. But there are parameters. “There’s a point at which I won’t pass on that rising cost to the customer,” he says. “We can’t tell customers the price of that lobster is $125. They’ll just say, ‘Are you nuts?’ ”
Over in Midtown Manhattan, Costas Spiliadis of Milos sells most of his simply grilled fish to diners by the pound, at market price—including Dover sole, barbouni, and red snapper. The cost of fish varies so much that he has to take it into account, he says. “Fishermen hold a portion of their catch for Milos, and they call me up to tell me the price based on the market that day,” he says. “I never want to say, ‘Don’t send it, because it is too expensive.’ ” Spiliadis even varies the price based on fluctuations in the cost of the Greek sea salt he uses—shipped from the island of Kythira.
But beef doesn’t fluctuate often enough to warrant an MP label, says Mark Pastore, president of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors in North Bergen, N.J. “When I give beef prices to a restaurant, they’re set for a week; guaranteed for seven days. If you tell me you’re not printing the price of my steak on the menu because it might change overnight, it won’t.” Most of his clients can reprint their menus whenever they choose.
So how does chef Mar explain the mystery around her $700 steak? Technique. For her whiskey beef, a preparation she learned at a butcher shop in Paris, she ages prime beef—seven bones, seven steaks—for 160 days. Every week, she pours a bottle of French single-malt whiskey over it. The cost “is astronomical,” she says.
“As a chef, I’m looking at how to push the envelope forward,” she says. “Yeah, I could sell a regular tomahawk, but what’s that adding to the mix?”
The cost of her rib-eye may go higher still. “The price of beef has gone up 20 percent in the last three months. We sell 14 to 18 whiskey steaks a week. There’s a waiting list,” she adds. “If you don’t want it, don’t order it.”