Hold the Bread

by Ben Miller

Frank Bruni has an interesting post up on the Diner’s Journal, which argues that restaurants should start charging explicitly for bread, rather than hiding its cost by tweaking the prices charged for other dishes.

From the restaurant perspective, I think bread could actually be a money-losing amenity. There have been several times when I went out to dinner and was waffling on ordering an appetizer, but decided not to after receiving a generous helping of bread. That represents a loss of roughly $7 to $10 for the restaurant, which must be greater than the overall increase in the entree and/or dessert price that I ended up paying.

I’ve also found that bread can end up lessening a dining experience. It is often the very first food item that a diner has from that establishment, so if your offering is mediocre then it can start the meal off on the wrong foot, lessening expectations of what is to follow. (Unrelated, I think the same argument can be applied to why a restaurant should take care to have good cocktail offerings.)

That’s not to say there aren’t positives for bread. If you’re a restaurant known for being notoriously slow, then providing something up front may be a way to keep diners happy until their dishes arrive–something that could improve business by increasing the likelihood that they order dessert.

Good bread is also something a restaurant can use to really showcase what it offers. Last night, for example, I ate at Potenza, a restaurant down by 14th and H. One of the things that really intrigued me about the restaurant was that it also had a side bakery–something they showcased by giving you hunks of some of its homemade bread. (Note: it would have been better warm, but I did appreciate the process of having a stand where you could actually see your server take a huge loaf and cut it into pieces.) They also accompanied the bread with a clever trick of holding a small bowl of olive oil and onion pieces upside down on a plate and then lifting it up to cover the bottom. While simple, I liked the manuver and the presentation–it suggested that the bread and olive oil was something that some thought had gone into, not a necessary first element

In general though, I agree with Bruni. Bread and butter is certainly nice, and something I almost always reach for when offered, but I’d gladly pay $3 for nicer bread, than stick with a so-so offering for free.

What do you think? Bring on the bread or keep the table crumb free?


14 responses to “Hold the Bread

  1. How was Potenza?! I staked it out a few weeks ago and took notes about the bakery and lunch options but haven’t written it up since I haven’t actually eaten there yet.

  2. It’s on 15th and H. “Close” to 14th, true, but it’s silly to say that.

  3. I say ditch the bread altogether. People certainly don’t need the extra carbs. Upgrade your glass of wine instead and enjoy the additonal flavenoids.

  4. The presence of bread normally doesn’t persuade me to or dissuade me from ordering an appetizer. And good bread, even if the entree is not spectacular, will bring me back to a place.

    For example, La Strada in Del Ray has fantastic bread and infused olive oil, but my entree the first time I went wasn’t as good as I hoped. But, because of the bread, we went back, I got something else, and loved it.

    I certainly might be alone in my thoughts on this…I know my wife is less inclined to order an app if there is bread on the table.

  5. @Mandy

    I’m still not entirely sure. My cocktail wasn’t very good, but I don’t know enough about them to pick what type I’m likely to enjoy.

    The risotto balls (and especially the sauce they had) were quite good. The lamb meatballs were pretty good as well, though not as good as the risotto balls.

    For main course, I got the rabbit and truffle stuffed pasta, basically the reason I picked the restaurant after reading the DCist review. They looked great and had a good sauce, but was somewhat disappointing because I felt like all I could taste was cheese.

    We also had three side vegetables, carmelized cipolline onions (fantastic), roasted red peppers (good), and garlic and chili-marinated artichokes (couldn’t taste the chili or garlic at all).

    I didn’t try a dessert because we were stuffed (helped by the bread at the beginning).

  6. I’m a bread nut – so i’ll always appreciate a good bread offering to start the meal… every once in a while it may affect whether or not i order an app, or which one i order… but generally not.

    more likely the amount of bread i eat will dictate how much leftovers there are to take home – not so much how much gets ordered…

    that said – i’d certainly pay for bread if that was going to increase the quality of the bread… however, mexican restaurants where i have to pay separately for chips and salsa drive me nuts… go figure

  7. Well, I think a very modest charge for bread–just enough to make me consciously consider whether I actually want bread or not, rather than mindlessly noshing down what magically appears at the table–might improve my dining experiences by preventing me from eating too much bread up front and interfering with my enjoyment of the rest of the meal.

    I also don’t really understand why, aside from the “helping you not get hungry while you wait” issue Ben mentions, restaurants serve bread BEFORE your courses, rather than alongside them. This is not the way we typically eat at home or in formal non-restaurant-type dinners. It seems odd and artificial.

    I will note: When we went to Alinea, some of the courses actually came with bread pairings, which was interesting, and something that it seems might make sense for less extravagant, merely high-end restaurants to consider doing
    . A few of them didn’t add much, but others did, and the specialized butters than accompanied one of the breads were amazing.

  8. Nicholas Warino

    Free bread (or chips and salsa) is a huge selling point for me to go to a restaurant in the first place. No food tastes better than free food. Okay, not really.

  9. @Mandy I went there with Ben, and I had the wild boar ragu. It was overall delicious, but I would say my only criticism was that there was just a bit too much of a salty taste to the dish. Still I thought it was an overall pleasant experience.

  10. I was initially hostile to this idea, but it’s starting to grow on me. I think I would indeed rather pay for better bread only when I actually want it. Though I’m not entirely convinced that this would lead directly to better bread and less hidden costs overall… it seems likely we’d end up with the same quality bread and same entree costs for the customer but more profit for the restaurant. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

  11. Crumb free all the way. 9 times out of 10 the bread is no great shakes. At those few places that have the good stuff (or amazing dipping oil or some sort of spread or whatever), I’d just order it!

  12. Pingback: Taste T.O. - Food & Drink In Toronto » Food For Thought - Wednesday, April 29th

  13. Pingback: Potenza in DC « Mollytics!

  14. Pingback: Behavioral Economics and the Bread basket. | kashwaynepromotion.com

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