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Good Food at Fair Prices in New York

August 4, 2010

I imagine that I could write posts like this one until my fingers are numb.  There have been several commenters who are unconvinced when I argue that the food in Albany is more expensive than better food in larger metropolitan areas.

People have demanded proof.  And today I submit exhibit A.

To clarify, my point isn’t that every restaurant is less expensive or offers a better value proposition in larger cities.  There will always be restaurants that take their patrons for the proverbial ride.  My point is there are restaurants making good food, and selling it for a fair price in parts of the world where it would seem more expensive to operate a restaurant than Albany.  And my question is, if they can do it there, why can’t more restaurants do it here.  In fact, shouldn’t good food be even less expensive here?

That said, we have just had a new restaurant open that looks promising.

Anyhow, here is my first direct price comparison between two ostensibly similar restaurants.  One is here in Albany metro area and the other is in the New York City metro area.  I chose one of Albany’s most beloved Italian restaurants, and in less than five minutes I found a better and cheaper one further downstate.

The Albany institution is Café Capriccio, where appetizers range from $10-$12, most pastas cost between $20-$22, and entrees range from $28-35.  Now granted, this is among the more expensive restaurants in the area, but Yelpers who I know and trust (although I can’t say I agree with them here) have said that it is worth every penny.

Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce you to Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar in Astoria, NY.  No, it’s not Manhattan, but last time I checked Queens was still in the five boroughs.

The people behind Vesta and I come from a similar school of thought about what makes a good restaurant.  Their dinner menu is tightly focused.  There are five appetizers, four pizzas, three pasta entrees and three meat entrees.  Most appetizers are $9, pizzas average $13.50, pastas entrées are $15 and the meat entrées are $19 except for the grass-fed rib-eye which is $25.

That’s right, I said grass-fed rib-eye.  In fact, the menu declares that all their meats are humane, free range and antibiotic free.  Compared to Café Capriccio’s $35 Delmonico steak, this one is practically a steal.

Vesta also says that the local green market inspires their menu, and it is very clear to see.  They even host the Brooklyn Grange CSA that comes from a nearby one-acre rooftop farm.  On the menu are string beans, potatoes, corn on the cob, carrots, summer greens, basil, summer squash and tomato, all of which I have received recently from my own CSA share.

To their credit, Capriccio’s summer menu is loaded with homegrown heirloom tomatoes.  And their appetizer selection includes beet salad, insalata caprese, summer salad with local vegetables, melon salad and an heirloom tomato bruschetta.  

It’s important to note that Vesta doesn’t just look good on paper.  People love it.  On Yelp it has 4.5 stars based on 94 reviews.  That is spectacular.  And it’s not as if Vesta is able to charge less because they skimp on things like décor or tableware. This is a handsome restaurant.

Truth be told, one of my complaints about Café Capriccio was their cheap flatware and their thick-rimmed wine glasses.  I can tell from the pictures that these things too are better at Vesta which would make it difficult to argue that Capriccio is a more upscale establishment overall.

What I am saying, is that when there are restaurants in the New York City metro like Vesta, that can produce good food at a fair value in a nice setting, I don’t understand why there aren’t more places like that around here.  And I can’t fathom why people pay more money to eat lesser food in Albany.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    August 4, 2010 11:37 am

    I certainly do not disagree with you about some places in the area being too highly priced. But at the same time I don’t believe can fairly compare prices in entire area by cherry picking two restaurants. I better idea is to find a similar entree over a couple restaurants in both areas to come up with an average, because while a dish at Cafe Capriccio can be $25 or above the same dish at Katrinellos Bistro or Amo la Bella would be considerably less. Sure the ambiance and size of restaurants aren’t the same (and I’m sure some would argue quality), but the prices of the area is the main factor. Not disagreeing with the hypothesis just the method.

  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    August 4, 2010 11:40 am

    Thanks for the proof. I agree that too many places up here are shockingly overpriced and just not good value.

  3. imajovigirl permalink
    August 4, 2010 12:10 pm

    I always heard we live in an “expensive area of NYS” as far as shipping goes. Shipping costs are more here than downstate. Not sure how true it is but it would explain alot of our pricing.

  4. August 4, 2010 2:55 pm

    # of Italian restaurants in Queens/NYC Metro Area = x
    #of Italian restaurants in Albany= y

    I am willing to bet about a million bucks that x > y by about a 1000 times.

    Taking an utterly anti-altruistic view of the restaurant industry (prob. a good policy), businesses are generally only as good as they have to be. Vesta is competing with hundreds of comparable establishments within an easily traversed distance. Cafe Cappriccio is competing with 4 or 5 comparable establishments and a bunch of hack pizza joints. This is aside from the obvious differences in the tastes/affluence of the respective clientèles.

    You are asking, if the people are more affluent in NYC, then why are the prices cheaper there? Go to what is considered the ultimate Italian dining experience in NYC and let me know if you are paying 25 bucks a plate. As Cafe Cappriccio is considered the “best/nicest” Italian restaurant in town, they are able to command relatively high prices here.

    I would offer the same critique here as I do towards your Albany vs. Austin commentary. All things considering, they are not very useful comparisons. If you managed to cite an Italian restaurant of the quality of Vesta in Utica or Rochester, this might beg the question as to why Albany can’t compete.

  5. August 4, 2010 8:53 pm

    A friend’s cousin is involved in the Brooklyn Grange… such a cool project!

  6. maltnsmoke permalink
    August 5, 2010 1:16 am

    I found some nice pictures of a restaurant located in a totally different market. Its owners share my philosophy on how a menu should be constructed. I’ve never seen the restaurant in person, much less sampled their food, but most Yelpers say it is awesome. I agree with the Yelpers 4.5 star rating on this restaurant that I’ve never seen or sampled. But I disagree with the 5 star rating given to Café Capriccio by “Yelpers who I know and trust”. Based on this avalanche of evidence, I have concluded that Café Capriccio is an inferior restaurant and its prices are too high. By the way, most Albany area restaurants are inferior and overpriced.

    I’m tempted to ascribe the “Good Food at Fair Prices in New York” post (which I liberally paraphrase) to the after effects of certain events which lead to the “White Dog a Go-Go” post. But those who live in very tall and apparently bottomless glass houses ought not hurl stones and such.

    Who wouldn’t love to get something better for less? The FLB is to be commended; it is fighting the good fight. But Albany prices are Albany prices because this is Albany. These prices reflect an amalgam of largely immutable market forces that are particular to this area. Sadly, restaurants located in distant markets are not reasonable alternatives and do not provide competition for local offerings.

    Successful restaurateurs are not acting in concert to adopt a philosophy at variance with that of the FLB and/or engaging in price fixing. Successful restaurateurs are charging what they charge and serving what they serve because people are willing to pay what they are charging for what they serve.

    The FLB’s strength lies in educating its readers about the universe of wondrous foodstuffs and food service practices which exist elsewhere. It has drawn in this fan and I dare say many others. The existence of the FLB and its robust following tells the professionals that there are customers who appreciate the values which it espouses. Many of us hope that some entrepreneur(s) will take the FLB’s message to heart and give Albany world class food for less. Thus far, it does not seem that anyone has concluded that this would be a profitable endeavor. Or perhaps it has been tried and failed.

    I think that the FLB stumbles when it singles out a well regarded and apparently successful restaurant and asserts that its food is inferior and its prices are too high. In fact, the FLB will probably be stuck writing “posts like this one until (its) fingers are numb”, if history is any indication. Absent additional outside forces, telling a successful business to give more and charge less will not work. It will take competition from superior restauranteurs to have an appreciable effect on the Albany restaurant culture. Meanwhile, those who sit and write might as well sit and wish.

  7. August 5, 2010 11:36 am

    Generally, I don’t bother eating Italian out. It always falls short of whatever my mother can make, and I feel strange paying for something I know I can get better at home.

    That aside, after a jaunt down to NYC to stay with some friends a few months ago, my boyfriend and I have been lamenting the fact that there just aren’t all that many restaurants locally that are in a reasonable price range with food good enough that we’re willing to pay for it. Our first night there we headed over to a funny little restaurant with fantastic food–we each ate every bit of it on our plates–and each ordered a drink (martini, long island iced tea, beer) and ended up with a bill around sixty bucks. I’m not sure if the food was spectacular or if we were just hungry, but the place was packed, and I suspect that even on a barely peckish day the meals would have been solid if they weren’t mind-blowingly delicious.

    We’re very sad, because we don’t really eat out much when we’re home, because it seems so hard to find a comparable experience :p

  8. August 6, 2010 3:08 pm

    Sometimes I think restaurateurs give less attention to margins and operating expenses than they do the price their competitor down the block charges. This escalates and compounds over the years. I travel back and forth regularly between Schroon Lake and Poughkeepsie. A deli breakfast sandwich with (bacon, ham,or sausage) and a coffee, cost $1.99 +/- at most places in the Poughkeepsie area, and $4.99 +/- in Schroon Lake. What’s up with that? They’re just looking at what everyone else charges locally.

  9. Richie from Nisky permalink
    August 26, 2010 2:20 pm

    As a former Long Islander, I have always wonderd why the restaurants in the Capital District seem way overpriced for the quality of the food that they serve, compared to my dining experiences on Long Island. Perhaps it is the lack of competetion. Restaurants up here charge what they can get away with because there is no serious competion to drive the prices down. Take for example “upscale” (..I hate that term..)steakhouses. In Albany, there are two – 677 Prime and the Brown Derby. Along one 2 mile stretch of Rt. 25A between Great Neck and Manhasset are four steakhouses – Morton’s, Burton & Doyle, El Tango, and Peter Lugers, with a Ruth’s Chris just a short drive over in Garden City. Plus there are countless other established restaurants on Long Island that serve a good steak at a reasonable price. You would think that Nassau County, with a median household income (2008) of $94,856, compared to Albany County’s $59,245,would warrant restaurants with stratospheric prices (like 677 Prime). Not so, the competition keeps the prices lower.

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