, , , , ,

Hamburger and french fries © Keller & Keller Photography/the food passionates/Corbis

Gourmet burgers
Using high-end ingredients like foie gras and truffles to glamorize the burger and elevate it from the everyday category allows an eatery to hike up the price without offending customers, who believe they’re getting a taste of luxury at a relative bargain. “But the minuscule use of that luxury ingredient — the co-star — never justifies the price increase,” says restaurateur and consultant Jody Pennette.
Spaghetti and meatballs © Maren Caruso/FoodPix/Getty Images
Spaghetti with meatballs

There’s nothing like low-cost pasta to bulk up a restaurant’s profits — and a little goes a long way, because pasta expands as it cooks. One pound of dry spaghetti will yield almost 3 pounds of cooked pasta. That’s right — you’re paying for water!

Meatballs are also inexpensive to prepare: Ground meat, which is considerably cheaper than whole cuts, is padded with breadcrumbs and minced vegetables and simmered in plain old tomato sauce. “When I was the manager of a restaurant, I wanted the customers to order spaghetti and meatballs because it cost me 90 cents a plate to make and we sold it for $6.75 with salad and bread,” says restaurant consultant Linda Lipsky. “I didn’t really want them to order the steak!”

Edamame on a rectangular dish © Acme Food Arts/StockFood Creative/Getty Images

Walk into a Japanese restaurant hungry and you’re likely to order the $6 bowl of soybeans, or edamame, to tide you over while you ponder the menu. Next time, avoid the temptation. Restaurants buy frozen edamame for $1.95 a pound or sometimes even less if it’s from a chain.
Molcajete bowl and guacamole © Tom Grill/Getty Images

The rule “don’t order what you can make at home” definitely applies here. And you should be especially wary of eateries that make your guacamole tableside and serve it up in fancy traditional molcajete stone bowls.

All that “authenticity” and traditional preparation comes at a cost, a trick that restaurants use to “add value” — a few extra dollars — to the price of an otherwise relatively basic dish. Restaurants pay about 50 cents to $1 for a single avocado but will charge a party of diners up to $14 for a bowl of tableside-prepared guacamole with tortilla chips, salsa and other additional but inexpensive flourishes.

Shrimp Caesar salad © Rita Maas/FoodPix/Getty Images

Shrimp Caesar salad

Chances are, the shrimp in your Caesar salad traveled halfway across the world and aren’t of great quality. In fact, they probably cost the same as, if not less than, the mass-produced chicken that is the other, less expensive option for this salad. But because we think of shrimp as being a higher-value protein, we’ll pay more for it. As for the romaine lettuce, the croutons made from yesterday’s leftover bread and the cheesy vinaigrette, they cost the kitchen mere cents.


Strawberry pancakes with whipped cream © Norman Hollands/Getty Images

Stack of pancakes
When you order the pancakes at brunch, it’s the kitchen crew that gets the last laugh. They combine flour, eggs and milk (buttermilk if you’re lucky) with some leavening agents, griddle cupfuls for a few minutes on either side, then charge you up to $10 for a dish you make at home every other Sunday for less than $1 a portion.
Chicken noodle soup © Henderson, Tom/the food passionates/Corbis
Chicken noodle soup
One chicken can yield a huge pot of soup, especially if coupled with a little bouillon for an extra boost of flavor, plenty of noodles and some carrots and celery for good measure. One portion can cost a restaurant just 30 cents to make, yet it will be featured on menus for around $4.95 — and often more.