The Price of New York City dining
April 25th, 2011
09:00 PM ET
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A reading from the works of noted gourmands Vincent and Mary Price, from their 1965 cookbook "A Treasury of Great Recipes":

"If there is one restaurant that epitomizes New York today it is The Four Seasons. Sophisticated, urbane, expensive, its stark geometry reflects that city of skyscrapers. Nature is permitted to intrude, as it does on the city itself, in seasonal paintings that scarcely affect the austere architecture. New Yorkers who dine at The Four Seasons know which season has arrived by the plants in the window baskets. Who needs a calendar?"

"Perfectionists down to the last tiny detail, the management of the restaurant have planned a cuisine that is seasonal too. The menu changes four times a year and in this day of frozen foods that are monotonously available all year 'round, it's fun to get the fresh things only in season and only at their very best. Vegetables, usually the dullest part of restaurant meals, are a special treat at The Four Seasons. They use only young tiny ones, and you select them not from the menu but from a basket that is brought to your table. Baby peas, asparagus, beans, carrots are arranged like a rustic still life, and the ones you choose are then prepared to order for you. Desserts are wheeled over to each table on a special dessert wagon, and hors d'oeuvres are yours to choose from an iced wagon that displays them like a work of art."

Cart fetish aside, the latter half of the text seems pretty prescient about the level of locavoristic enthusiasm present in modern day New York City dining. In fact The Four Seasons is largely credited with introducing the concept of seasonality to the white tablecloth world. But while the restaurant's levels of fastidiousness, relevance and commitment to adolescent vegetables have waned in the past four and a half decades (Frank Bruni's 2007 review in the New York Times cited a squash ravioli that was "sad molehill of bland mush" and "droopy" lettuce), one thing certainly has not.

Remember way back in the second sentence when the Prices invoked expense? As it happens, the volume included a two-page spread of the summer's menu, so just for fun, we nabbed today's menu for comparison. Sadly though, it seems the a la carte options are no longer a part of the standard menu, so if one is indeed to have an in-basket viewing of an infantile mangetout, one must arrange for it in the privacy of one's own home - presumably with the permission of its parents.

mangetout

mangetout

That aside, the closest analogues I can find:

(1965) Consomme Royale or Double Consomme with Sorrel – $1.25
(2011) Chicken Consomme, Matzo Balls – $21

(1965) Early Summer Greens – $1.25
(2011) Organic Greens, Breakfast Radish – $18

(1965) Young Salmon or Sturgeon, Our Smokehouse – $2.95
(2011) Scottish Smoked Salmon, Carved Tableside – $30

(1965) Roast Rack of Lamb Persille with Robust Herbs for Two – $14
(2011) Rack of Lamb, Sugar Snap Peas, Morels, Roasted Fingerling Potatoes – $65

(1965) Whole Baby Chicken, Smitane Sauce, Wild Rice – $5.50
(1965) Roast Chicken, Green Bean Salad – $5.75
(2011) Grilled Spring Chicken, Morels, Fiddlehead Ferns – $39

The point of this little menu meander (in addition to further indulging my obsession with editorial accounts of mid-20th-century New York dining)? On Saturday, Time Out New York's Jordana Rothman, James Beard Foundation vice president Mitchell Davis and I took part in a panel discussion at the JBF LTD pop-up restaurant on the topic of The State of Food in NYC, and I couldn't help but wonder to which of the dining public's current fixations we'd still be cleaving several decades down the line.

Are cupcake trucks, pop-ups, artisanal butchers, hipster farmers, heirlocaganivore vegetables, cellphone food porn snapshots and 24-7 food networks on the menu for good, or are they destined to go the way of the mangetout basket and aspic-swaddled egg? I've got a few guesses, myself, which I'll address in an upcoming post, but in the meantime - share your theories in the comments below and we just might highlight them in an upcoming post.

Now, off to rifle through my couch cushions. There's an asparagus appetizer on The Four Seasons' Spring menu and I'm only, like $24.99 away.



soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. heather

    so you could eat dinner there for the price of a day at six flags

    April 27, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  2. jan

    here's an idea..regular cooking like so many mothers did...from the pioneer women to the 50's and 60's. Great food, low prices. I can always cook at home and know what is in it..if I washed my hands, blew my nose, etc..lol

    April 27, 2011 at 3:39 am |
  3. Sam

    As a former New Yorker, I can tell you that the food in the restaurants is badly overpriced. However so is the rent, hence the ridiculous prices. I have eaten at about 5 or 6 of the top restaurants and I've yet to rank any in my top 10 of all time. Now, when I go to New York, I eat what their best at: Hot Dogs, Pizza and Jewish delis. That is the best anywhere in the world.

    April 26, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  4. OBXer

    $48 for maryland crab cakes? You have GOT to be kidding. You can buy a pound of fresh picked, jumbo lump crab meat (right off the crab boats) in the outer banks for $22. There is NO WAY this restautant can be any better.

    April 26, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  5. NCJ

    I beg to differ with the idea of Four Seasons originating the concept of dining seasonally. The middle class and poor have been doing it forever. Before canning was widely available it was called not being able to afford hot house grown, and after canning it was called eating whatever grew in the garden or was cheapest at the market.

    April 26, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Yup! I agree – which is why I said that they introduced it to the white tablecloth world. Outside of restaurants and cities, that's just how you eat anyhow. For restaurants at the time, it was revolutionary.

      April 26, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Truth, Temporary Bachelor

      I take it a step further and divide it by Trout Season, Bass Season, Pheasant season, etc...

      April 26, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  6. bigben

    "The menu changes four times a year and in this day of frozen foods that are monotonously available all year 'round, it's fun to get the fresh things only in season and only at their very best."
    What do they do in the winter and other times when New York is covered in snow? I don't know of any vegetables that grow in snow. Either they are frozen vegetables or shipped from somewhere else which blows the whole freshest and at their best. Even if the plant allows for it, I don't see how a state that gets covered in snow several months a year can even get more than one growing season.

    April 26, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • OBXer

      I agree. I'll bet 90% of their food is shipped in from other parts of the country. Even if it's in season, it would take a few days to get it in. Not like going outside & picking it.

      April 26, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  7. I want da gold!

    I take pictures of Mexican food all the time and send it to friends. It's called mexting. I'm not sure what it is about Mexican food which compels people to take pics and share it. You just have to though!

    April 26, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Jerv

      I got dat gold!

      April 26, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • jujubeans

      You're under thirthy, right?

      April 26, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  8. mamablueyz

    September of 2010 I was lucky enough to attend a dinner at Ayrshire Farm in Virginia. It was such a pleasure to see younger people interested in maintaining small organic farms.

    The amount of work it takes is staggering and for someone like myself who truly loves good food, I hope and pray that more and more young people take the time and continue to create and cultivate the fantastic organic produce that is so hard to find.

    April 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  9. Mildred

    I suspect one wouldn't get even a cup of tap water for those prices!

    April 26, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • aubrie

      At a resort on the island of St. Maarten, I asked for a glass of water after dancing..... they charged me $8.50!!!!! I could buy TWO cases of bottled water where I live for that.

      April 26, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
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