Restaurants are in the business of making money and they have some pretty sneaky ways of squeezing a few extra dollars from customer’s wallets. Before you make reservations at the posh restaurant that’s been on your must-try list for months, learn the tricks of the trade.
Kobe beef is very much a real thing, but unless the fancy restaurant you’re dining at is located in Japan, the beef you’re eating is almost certainly not Kobe. You see, this beef comes from a specific breed of Japanese cattle that falls under the umbrella of Wagyu, widely considered the most decadent beef in the world. But even amongst other Wagyu cattle, the Kobe stands alone due to its speckled fat marbling inside the meat itself. True Kobe beef must come from Japan. The local environment, methods, and expertise required to properly produce this meat can only be found in the Asian country. Because of the strict criteria, there is very little Kobe beef to go around. According to Business Insider, just 3,000 to 4,000 cattle a year make the cut as Kobe beef after slaughter and inspection. It has become common practice in the U.S. to label any type of expensive meat as “Kobe,” But what you’re most likely getting instead is Wagyu beef, which is still a prized piece of meat. But a Kobe steak is one of the most expensive cuts of meat in the world, and when you order one but receive something of lesser quality, you’re getting scammed out of some serious money.
Seafood is a popular and often expensive food option that is the center of many fancy restaurants’ menus. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most fraud-laden food categories in the country. In a practice known as species substitution, a restaurant will claim to be offering an expensive fish, such as red snapper, which can cost more than $20 per pound. Instead, they’ll serve you a different, less-expensive fish like tilapia, and pocket the difference. Although this type of fraud is committed at the grocery store as well, it’s easier to get away with at restaurants. Here, the customer only sees and tastes the fish after it’s been cooked, breaded, seasoned, covered in sauce, or otherwise disguised. A report done by Oceana found that fish was mislabeled at restaurants 38 percent of the time. According to the group, “More than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, and less than one percent is inspected by the government specifically for fraud.” Not only is this practice scamming people out of money, but it can also be downright dangerous. The Oceana study found that fish on the FDA’s “Do Not Eat” list for sensitive groups such as pregnant women and children because of their high mercury content were sold to customers who had ordered safer fish. Additionally, 84 percent of the white tuna sampled was actually escolar, an oily fish that can cause acute gastrointestinal symptoms.
Now that we know of all the issues with fish labeling, let’s take a closer look at the main type of eateries serving seafood: sushi restaurants. Not only do these venues mislabel fish (the Oceana study found that sushi restaurants mislabel 74 percent of the time), they also find other ways to cut corners. John Daley, chef and owner of Sushi Ko in New York, has gone on record with the ways sushi places rip you off. One easy trick is to push inside-out rolls, in which the fish is on the inside and the rice on the outside. He says: “When rice is put on the outside, you can use more rice. Rice is cheaper than fish, so they put rice on the outside to fill you up. There’s more rice and the filler uses less fish.” Some of the other highlights (or lowlights) include the use of spicy tuna, oils, and mayo to mask the flavor of rotting fish; using sushi scraps as tartar; and serving fake wasabi, which is essentially powdered mustard covered in horseradish.
Real Champagne is one of the most highly regulated foods or beverages on Earth. The title “Champagne” can only be given to sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region of France. “Give us a bottle of your finest champagne, five shrimp cocktails, and some bread for my brother.” According to the governing body of Champagne, the grapes used to make this wine have characteristics, that because of the region’s particular geography — soil, climate, etc — make them unique to the Champagne region. Strict adherence to the winemaking process ensures there are no bad bottles of Champagne in the world. These rules are law in Europe and followed by most of the world, except in the United States. In the early 1900s, the Treaty of Versailles established that only sparkling wine from Champagne, France could in fact be called Champagne. However, although the United States signed the treaty, the Senate never ratified it. A 2006 trade agreement stated the U.S. would not allow new winemakers to describe their wine as Champagne; however, any producers already using the term were allowed to keep doing so. A fancy restaurant will not likely try to pass off faux Champagne for the real thing if you order a bottle or even a glass. However, any cooked dish or cocktail mixed with the beverage might not be as good as it sounds. “Wrong glass, sir….”
Truffle oil has become one of the buzziest food terms over the past few years. It’s touted as a delectable elixir capable of elevating the taste of dishes. Restaurants will often charge a premium for the experience of consuming this added deliciousness, even jacking up the price of something as humble as the french fry. But what exactly is truffle oil and why are we paying so much for it? The answer is disappointing. One would assume that truffle oil is infused with actual truffles. But these days, truffle oil rarely contains any truffle at all. Instead, it is typically made of synthetic ingredients completely devoid of the earthy flavors of the real ingredients. Take it from Gordon Ramsay, who berated a MasterChef contestant who used it. According to him, truffle oil is “One of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known to chefs.” Another trick fancy restaurants like to employ is using overly descriptive language to describe their dishes.
According to one study, descriptive menu labels raised sales by 27 percent. The problem with this technique is that most of those adjectives are meaningless if not completely inaccurate. For example, a few years back, restaurants began describing their steaks and burgers as made from “Angus” beef after they found that people were willing to pay more when this adjective was used. The term is derived from Scottish Aberdeen Angus, a highly prized breed of cattle. However, the USDA defines Angus as beef coming from any cattle that is 50.01 percent or more black. And when you see food described as originating from a particular region, odds are that’s not where it came from. The Tampa Bay Times researched every restaurant the paper had reviewed that made specific provenance claims and each one had faulty descriptions. The Florida blue crab was from the Indian Ocean, the wild Alaskan Pollock was farmed in China, and “fresh local salad greens” were a month old, and from Mexico. And don’t forget about the ever-popular adjective “organic.” The USDA regulates the term, but according to The New York Times, many restaurant suppliers and eateries add it without proper approval.
One common trick used by upscale restaurants is to remove the dollar signs from menus, leaving just the numerical price of the dish. A study done by the Cornell University School of Hotel Management found that diners spent significantly more money when given a menu without dollar signs. Even if the word “dollar” was spelled out, it caused customers to spend less. Researchers concluded that any references to dollars, “reminds people of the pain of paying.” “You could probably write it off, right?” “Yes.” “I didn’t think about that, it is a business expense.” Restaurants also like to bait diners into purchasing expensive dishes by framing them as bargains. There are a few ways of accomplishing this. One is by including certain items that can be shockingly expensive. Restaurants know that most guests will never order these dishes. But by putting other pricey items nearby on the menu, they appear to be a bargain even if they are in fact very overpriced. Fancy restaurants also reel in diners with something known as bracketing. This is when eateries offer the same dish in two different sizes. The guest doesn’t know how much less food comes in the smaller portion. Naturally, they tend to order the smaller, less-expensive option believing it to be the better offer. Yet this is the size the restaurant wanted to sell and the price it wanted to charge.
We all know that restaurants can have high markups on their food and drink. It’s how they make money. But some markups seem downright astronomical. Nowhere is this better seen than on the wine list. A bottle of wine can easily cost three or four times more at a restaurant than what they paid for it. Wine by the glass is even worse. Often, the price of a single glass is what the restaurant spent for the whole bottle. Restaurants are able to do this because they know they have you. If you’ve decided you want to have a glass or two of wine at dinner, odds are you’re going to. According to Newsweek, prepared food takes time, whereas wine is a prepackaged item and all the restaurant has to do is open and serve it. They often choose to charge up to four times more than what they paid for it, simply because they can. Fancy restaurants know that most of their customers are coming there to spend money. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to set the stage for their diners to fork over as much as possible.
Upscale restaurants are prone to trying to create a mood for customers to spend a few extra dollars. As researchers at the University of Leicester discovered, one way of doing this is by playing some classical music. Dr. Adrian North, senior lecturer in psychology at the university, said, “When you hear a piece of music it activates all types of knowledge. If you hear classical music, it has got all sorts of connotations of sophistication, affluence, and wealth and it makes you feel a bit posh. In a restaurant, this has the effect of making you spend a bit more money. Where people were really spending the money was on the luxury items, such as starters, desserts, and coffees.”