Navigating the costly culinary landscape in 2024

Feb 05, 2024
Source: Getty Images.

How much is too much for a restaurant meal for two? $100? $200? Perhaps $300?

My wife was searching for a restaurant to celebrate Chinese New Year in this, the Year of the Dragon. I was brought up believing that the best Chinese food was “cheap and cheerful”. Not in 2024.

Our favourite Chinese, Dragon Cove at Sanctuary Cove, is charging diners $98 per head for a welcome drink, entrees and two mains with guests able to choose between King Prawns with XO sauce; Sizzling Black Pepper Eye-fillet; Steamed Coral trout fillet; and Four Seasons Beans.

I think $196 for the limited choice of mains is expensive – especially when you have to put alcohol on top of that. She then checked other places nearby and found that prices varied between $75 and $120 per person. We used to eat out at least once a week but rising costs have curtailed that to about once a fortnight – and we’ve become picky about where, and when, we eat. It pays to look for mid- week deals and set-price menus that help keep the costs down.

So, what about fine dining? What will that set you back these days? And how does a night out at a top shelf restaurant compare with say, a night at the theatre? Buying the best two seats in the house this month at QPAC for the 1975-written stage show Chicago will cost you $427. The show, which stars my old school mate Anthony Warlow, goes for two-and-a-half hours, including the interval at which you will no doubt want to indulge in a glass of champagne. So, it’s probably going to cost you close to $480 by the time you pay for parking.

Read any restaurant review and then look in the comments section and you will no doubt find a plethora of punters saying that the fare isn’t worth the money. Renowned food magazine Gourmet Traveller rated Agnes as its restaurant of the year in 2023.

GT wrote of Agnes that: “The renovated warehouse embraces the feudal firepit spirit, with the black furniture, double-height ceiling and flickering firelight giving off Game of Thrones vibes – albeit with less slaughter and more great wine that embraces old-world classicism and new-world experimentation.’’ Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? So, what’s on the menu at this fancied Brisbane restaurant – and at what cost?

Entrees on the a la carte menu start at $18 (charred carrots, smoked labne, mandarin kosho and buckwheat) and rise to $50 (Tiger prawns, scallop boudin, mussels, fermented chilli and shishito). The mains vary from $66 for Snapper, fennel seed cream, orange and pine nuts to $260 for 8+ Wagyu shortloin and accoutrements. A side of oak lettuce with a whey vinaigrette will cost you $13. Desserts range from $14 for Fig leaf and coconut rice pudding brûlée, with charred mango sorbet to $38 for a cheese plate. So, if both of you go for the cheapest items on the menu a three-course meal for two will set you back $196, plus drinks. If you opt for the most expensive items, it will cost you $696, plus drinks.

In reality, it is not that much different from seeing Chicago, and probably a lot cheaper than seeing Taylor Swift in concert. Restaurant, clubs and pub owners will argue that profit margins already are slim. They say that increasing wages, spiralling costs including soaring rents and energy prices, plus diminished consumer demand is threatening the industry’s viability. Some restaurants are already restricting opening hours to cut down on wage costs. One publican told me that he was having to pay teenage wait staff $50 an hour on Sundays to simply collect glasses. I was not only shocked by that, but I seriously thought about applying for a job.

What about the cheaper end of the market? Well, it’s also not that cheap anymore. I was in a Bowls Club last week and was fighting the urge to buy a burger. My burger of choice is always a meat patty, dripping golden cheese with the lot. I add as many toppings as possible. The burger with the works at this club was $38 for non-members. That’s right, $38 for a basic burger with extras that included bacon, egg, beetroot and pineapple. Oh, I almost forgot, it came with fries. Fast food prices, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, have risen by as much as 25 percent overall, well above the inflation rate.

For example, a regular Zinger Burger meal cost $8.95 in 2021. It’s now $11.95. Prices at McDonald’s rose on average by more than 8 percent, year-on-year, which is very similar to Hungry Jacks. Food is now costing us a small fortune both in supermarkets and in restaurants. People are not only eating out less because of rising costs, but they are also hosting at- home dinner parties less because it is so expensive. In years gone by, it was not out of the question to buy a slab of steaks, throw them on the BBQ, and cook lunch for friends.

These days, you almost have to visit the bank manager for a loan to buy eight decent steaks. Thank goodness for lasagna and salad. It’s still the cheapest way to feed a horde of friends on short notice.

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