Starbucks evolved into a household name not just because it raised the profile of high-quality coffee. A major strength for the concept is its skill at satisfying a basic need — affordable indulgences. For $4, customers can buy a made-for-them, high-quality treat that does not break the bank.
In the current economy, consumers have trimmed spending on items deemed nonessential, including, in some cases, those $4 coffee drinks. But everyone still likes a treat, especially if it's something rare or seasonal or new. And if the price is right, all the better. Are you tapping into this demand? Here are examples from operators who see the allure of the affordable luxury and are playing into it.
Small plates are a popular way to keep the price manageable. Valenza Restaurant in Atlanta adapted the small plates philosophy with its Stuzzichino (translation: “to pick”) menu. Guests can choose from authentic tastes starting at $3; they include cavolfiore col bottarga with roasted cauliflower, sofrito and dried mullet roe; crispy gorgonzola-stuffed Cerinola olives; roasted figs with robiola and Acacian honey; house-cured bresaola, quince mostarda; and rabbit liver mousse with frisse and pistachio.
At Chicago's The Purple Pig, imported delicacies bring exotic flavor profiles to the small-plates menu. Options include scallop spiedini with chickpea aioli, tuna “prosciutto,” sepia, octopus brought in from Spain, and Portuguese-sourced fried whitebait and sardines.
Few things say luxury better than lobster, foie gras, caviar, truffles and other pricey delicacies. Even sparing use of these ingredients immediately dresses up a dish and makes it seem more special. And they can dress up something as mundane as a bar snack: Boulder, CO's Black Cat Restaurant serves lobster popcorn and lobster cracklings for $3.
In New York, Macbar serves a Mac Lobsta' with fresh lobster, cognac, tarragon and mascarpone, for $9.
Another New York venue, Pizzeria Stella, sells a $17 Tartufo Pizza with black truffles, fontina cheese, egg and parmesan. Still another, Recette, has salt cod fritters with lamb sausage ragu and curry aioli on the menu for $12; crispy sweetbreads with escarole, brown butter, lemon, capers and parsley go for $19.
At Sublime Food Lounge in Culver City, CA, one of Chef Randall Rosa's signature menu items is the $15 foie gras French toast. It is made with Hudson Valley foie gras on a French toast brioche with a passion fruit and ice wine syrup, onion marmalade and a frisee salad garnish tossed in pistachio oil.
One Atlanta restaurant, Canoe, offers quail as an $11 starter — specifically, Pekin barbecued plantation quail with chilied local baby collards and star anise boiled peanuts.
Tasting menus present an opportunity to serve affordable portions of costly ingredients. Jory, a restaurant at the Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg, OR, sells a $23, three-course lunch tasting that combines a smoked salmon croque monsieur with roasted beets, watercress, burrata cheese and fig salad and grilled lamb tenderloin with arugula, olive and apricot couscous.
To commemorate the Hermitage Hotel's 100th anniversary, Capitol Grille and Oak Bar at the Nashville hotel is running a value-driven red wine/chocolate tasting for $19.50. It teams a blackberry Valrhona chocolate truffle and a sparkling syrah; star anise ganache brownie, also made with Valrhona, with another syrah; and cacao berry espresso caramel tart, with a cabernet.
Some folks mark special occasions with prime rib, but Room, a steak-and-sushi joint in Atlanta, has put the cut within easier reach. Room serves up a prime rib deal every Friday and Saturday night. The prime rib is served au jus with horseradish cream, Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes for a very reasonable $19.95. To wash it down, a bottomless glass of the house red or white is an additional $10.
Melt, a Cleveland restaurant that has built a menu around the humble grilled cheese sandwich, did a luxury limited-time offer prime rib version recently. Called the Prime Time Rib Melt, this whopper piled up sliced house-roasted prime rib, smoked gouda mashed potatoes, muenster cheese and au jus/horseradish dipping sauce on a sandwich, all for $13.
Burgers may not seem like an indulgence, but their character changes when they involve exotic ingredients. John Howie Steak in Seattle dresses up ground Wagyu beef with Beecher's cheddar, thick-sliced Kurobuta bacon strips and special sauce between a split brioche roll to create a towering $8 treat.
The same goes for tuna. Tuna sandwich: Ho-hum. Ale-battered Albacore and local summer slaw (red and green cabbage, carrots, red onion, fresh mint, dried Oregon cranberries) for $7.59: Wow. That was a limited-time offering from the Pacific Northwest's Burgerville chain.
Rethinking expensive seafood dishes can be challenging. One New England staple, the lobster roll, can fetch up to $30. But Red Rock Bistro in Swampscott, north of Boston, tucks an entire lobster inside its version, dressed minimally with Bibb lettuce and a touch of mayo on a butter-grilled hot dog bun, for only $15 with fries. Another Boston eatery, Ashmont Grill, has been packing in guests on Thursdays with its Buck-A-Shuck oyster night (while many area restaurants charge up to $3 an oyster). Chef-owner Chris Douglass shucks the oysters himself.
High-ticket desserts can meet a little resistance, especially in times of economic restraint, but Capitol Grille and Oak Bar has the answer: half price on half portions of a number of sweet conclusions. Choices include a peach clafouti with almond, ginger ice cream and sorghum; a chocolate cobbler with buttermilk sorbet; an apple tart with cinnamon sucre, roasted apples, vanilla ice cream and caramel; and a coconut cake with cream cheese buttercream, blueberry compote and yuzu anglaise.
Chocolate lovers can indulge at Applebee's with the Triple Chocolate Meltdown, a moist chocolate cake topped with both dark and white chocolate and a fudge-filled center, served with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge. This extravaganza is listed at $5.49.
Bit of the bubbly on a budget? If your customers balk at the price tag on a bottle of premium champagne, offer it by the glass. Troquet in Boston serves glasses of Krug Grand Cuvee Brut for $20, Veuve Cliquot for $8.75. The restaurant recently conducted a month-long wine cellar sweep out promotion, selling vintage wines and champagnes for as low as $20 a bottle. A Twitter campaign brought in lots of wine lovers.
At Applebee's, a margarita is transformed to a big deal with the $9 Perfect Patron Margarita. It blends Patron Silver 100% Agave tequila and Patron Citronge with the chain's Perfect Margarita mix.