Despite the fact that so many people love going out to fancy dinners at fine dining restaurants that can cost you over $30 or $40 a head (or a whole lot more), I genuinely wonder if this is an effective use of their money. Let me explain: I am extremely skeptical of the abilities of the average person’s palate. Can you taste the difference between a $40 steak from Ruth’s Chris and, say, a $20 steak from Outback Steakhouse? If you like steak I’m sure your immediate thought is “of course I can!” So my next question is: can you tell me what makes one steak cost $20 more than another, only in terms of flavor and maybe appearance?
Let me also say I completely understand that a trip to any of these very expensive restaurants is considered more than just a meal – it’s an experience. There is no way I can valuate the “experience” of these restaurants, and I know this. My point here is to get you to ask yourself if it’s worth it to splurge so viciously on expensive dinners if you really just want great food.
I bring this up because the good folks over at Freakonomics have pointed out a new book by Robin Goldstein in which he poses taste tests to see if people can discern a great wine from an average one. (read: expensive vs. cheap) In fact, Steven D. Levitt actually conducted his own taste test on the hoity-toity poseurs known as the Harvard Society of Fellows. Guess what happened. Of course, one is not exactly a large sample size, so here is another example of a taste test by Dan Ariely, this time for those beer lovers out there.
Not one to discriminate against food, let’s take foie gras as an example. It is painfully expensive, but oh-so delicious. It’s pretty much the best form of meat pate/mousse. But while I, and many, many other people think its flavor is mouth-wateringly delectable, I doubt I can even distinguish everything that’s great about a good piece of foie. Knowing good from bad is one thing, but to actually have a flavor palate that can discern flavors is rare, I would argue. Maybe so would some economists at The American Association of Wine Economists who decided to play the same game as the aforementioned wine and beer folks, and then they decided to prove it. It might not be delicious, but odds are you have no idea what dog food tastes like.
So next time you treat yourself and your wife/girlfriend/hot date to a fancypants dinner, just remember that most of the value you get out of it is as much from the experience as it is from the food.