The Big Deals

So if the value of that happiness is highly subjective, as all happiness ultimately is, how do you determine what’s real value to you? How much would Proust have paid for his madeleines? How much of your Brahmin sensibility would you have sacrificed for the cassia that made your breakfast worth getting out of bed for? 

Before answering, consider that getting your money’s worth is as much about the dining experience, which is to say the emotional experience, as it is about the food itself. Maybe it’s the buzz of scoring the best table in the house, or the thrill of being cared for by five servers, that makes for money well spent. It could simply be the familiar vibe of a neighborhood bistro that’s worth paying for over and over. Or maybe it’s just the way a certain atmosphere brings out the best in a particular cluster of family or friends. Sometimes we’re spending our money just to be introduced to something we’ve never tasted before. (Pass the morel, amaretto gel, and black-truffle soup, could you?)

Talking to Dante de Magistris about all of this, he mentions a curious phenomenon he’s observed as the chef-owner of two very different eateries — fine-dining Cambridge restaurant Dante, and the casual Belmont spot Il Casale. “Our sfizi [mini appetizers] at Dante are $5 each,” he says. “At Il Casale they’re $6. But because Dante is thought of as expensive or upscale, you hear people complain that the sfizi are too expensive, but at Il Casale they don’t. It’s all about perception — and the way you feel when you walk in the door.”

Ken Oringer, who owns casual restaurants (Toro, Coppa, and La Verdad) as well as tony fine-dining spots (Clio and KO Prime), has noticed a related concept. At Toro and La Verdad, both of which have partylike atmospheres, the spending proposition is far less per check than at Clio or Oringer’s upscale steakhouse, KO Prime — but they’re constantly packed, and diners wind up spending plenty because they visit again and again. “A lot of people say Bostonians don’t like to spend money in restaurants,” he says. “I don’t think that’s true. People have no problem spending for things they think are quality, and that they love.”

The question that ultimately determines value, then, isn’t, “What is this certain food worth?” But rather, “What is it worth to me?” There are modern-day, cassialike splurges all around us. To find them, we sent our writers — everyone from longtime food editors to political junkies who prefer to eat nothing fancy — across town on personal quests to find the foodstuffs for which they’ll gladly open their wallets. Dig in.