Spaghetti and meatballs. The wedge salad. A bottle of wine. You don't have to be a well-heeled foodie to know that you're overpaying for certain items on a restaurant's menu -- you just need to have bought groceries. Like once, ever. Truth be told, though, there's a whole host of other dishes that, while they might seem reasonably priced, are actually netting the restaurant big margins at your expense.
To discover the most overpriced, marked-up, sucker-bet foods at your favorite eatery, we talked to chefs and restaurant owners; under the cloak of anonymity, they shared the biggest wastes of money on the menu.
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Real, actual Kobe beef is made in Japan from cows that get daily spa treatments, full-body exfoliations, and consultations with a naturopath. Or something like that. "Some restaurants, however, are serving American-style 'Kobe,' calling it Japanese Kobe, and charging $35/oz for it," said one chef, adding that since there are no standards for an "American" version of the beef, there's also no value in “Kobe” hot dogs, hamburgers, Bolognese sauces, nachos, or anything else. Restaurants are basically using the term to mean “add eight dollars.”
Spicy tuna roll
You know why they make that thing so damn spicy? The same reason cuisines from places with sub-standard refrigeration are often spicy: the meat is suspect. Not spoiled, necessarily, but as one owner told us, "I stay away from spicy tuna rolls because they're made with the leftover parts of the tuna and disguised with the spicy sauce."
The squid-to-breading ratio here is only slightly better than the ratio of basketball-to-commercials during the last 30 seconds of an NBA game. "You're paying for pure breading," one chef/owner told us, "which usually falls off or is chewy.”
The large majority of “truffle oil” has about as much actual truffle in it as there is lime juice in a can of Sprite. Pretty much every chef and owner we talked to agreed on this one, and many told us it’s usually a chemically engineered imitation or a highly diluted extract, like vanilla. Even on the rare occasion when actual truffles are used, paying $58 to see some black flecks on your risotto is never worth it.
This is not as obvious as you might think. Sure, you're paying for something you get for free, but if you're one of those people who's like "I can't trust the tap water that's so gross" and/or European, ask your server about the restaurant's tap water before you order bottled. Most places now have advanced filtration systems and the taste/clarity of the water is almost indistinguishable from that $11 bottle of Voss.
Any chicken entrée over $25
Unless that entrée is called “Chicken à la 20-Dollar Bill,” you’ve just grossly overpaid. Chicken -- even those free-range, born-free, allowed-to-vote-in-local-elections birds -- rarely cost the restaurant more than a few dollars per pound, one owner told us. He added for reference, "the cheese in your chicken quesadilla typically costs more."
Lobster mac and cheese
A few dollar markup from the standard mac and cheese makes sense, but any more is a waste of cash. "You aren’t getting prized lobster tails and generally not even claws, you’re getting all the scraps from the body shells," one restaurant owner said. "It may taste great, but the restaurant's laughing all the way to the bank."
Unless you’re knocking back $1 liquor pitchers at one of the best college bars in America, paying $8 for hangover-grade tequila is just an investment in a miserable next morning. One restaurant owner admitted that the markup is considerably higher on well drinks, while the quality is drastically lower. You're better off throwing down the extra dollar or two for a brand that purifies its booze.
Oysters used as an ingredient in a more complicated dish like oysters Rockefeller, or some other creative endeavor, are worth it. But simply oysters on a plate? As one chef put it: "$36-$45 per dozen is absolutely outrageous for an ingredient that requires no culinary skill whatsoever."
Mezze platters or artisanal toast
Think about how much you'd spend on a giant plate of Wonder Bread and ketchup, because while it's a little bit fancier, that's pretty much what you're getting. As one chef noted, "it's a great way for restaurants to charge an arm and a leg for bread and condiments."
Expensive wine or Champagne
At this point, telling someone the second-cheapest bottle of wine is the most marked up is kinda like telling someone pro wrestling isn’t real: the secret’s out. But the higher up the wine menu you go, the more actual cash you’re paying in a markup. One restaurant owner told us that if you’re a true wine connoisseur, you're better off just bringing in that favorite $100 bottle from home and paying the corkage fee. And if you’re not an aficionado? Then stop being a douche and order something cheap.
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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer at Thrillist. You will find absolutely no pictures of truffle oil, Kobe beef, or bottled water on his Instagram: @meltrez1.