Complimentary bread service in restaurants was once as ubiquitous as free chips and salsa at any Tex-Mex spot. And it's still seen in a majority of restaurants, from fast food (free breadsticks at Fazoli's) to high end (a beautiful basket of gratis bread at Triniti).
But as former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni astutely pointed out in 2009, those slices of bread and ramekins of butter aren't as free as you think.
"Their complimentary availability is reflected in prices on the rest of the menu," Bruni wrote. "The restaurant's balance sheet and overall price structure consider the cost of all that bread, much of it neglected."
It's this latter part -- neglected -- that caused Bruni to defend the new practice of charging for bread service in restaurants. Since so many people ignore or pick at the bread basket, he reasoned, restaurants should simply charge those who want bread and reduce the overall cost across the board for the rest of the diners.
"I think of Momofuku Ssam Bar," he wrote of the iconic New York City restaurant. "On its menu, bread and butter are listed on the menu as a dish. But what you get is a terrific crunchy baguette with two exceptional butter or spread options."
At Roost, the bread service costs $6 (pickles are an extra $5), but -- as with Momofuku Ssam Bar -- you get a crunchy loaf of bread and your choice of two whipped butters. The loaf of bread comes from Slow Dough, and sometimes it's two exaggeratedly large pretzels instead of a rough-edged, hearty pain de campagne. And the whipped butter selection changes from week to week: beets, blue cheese, bacon...
Is it worth $6? If you're a fan of thoughtful bread service or just well-made bread in general...sure. If you're the type of diner who picks at the bread basket like me? No, of course not.
But that's the beauty of non-complimentary bread service: Diners aren't tempted to fill up on the free stuff just because it's there, and those who don't want bread aren't forced to pay for it in the overall cost of their dinner.
At a time when high-end restaurants are being judged on their bread service as much as the rest of the meal -- seriously, a tough Sysco dinner roll can easily be that one flat tuba note in an otherwise beautifully composed evening -- it makes sense that restaurants would elevate bread to a menu item equal to other appetizers or small plates. And it's certainly easier to justify extra effort or cost for a truly good product when you're charging diners for it.
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What's more interesting to me is that in three short years, diners seem to have fallen in line with Bruni's suggestion -- or at least those dining at Roost. For all the negative remarks I've heard about Roost (they've been few, but consistent) from other diners, not one has been about the cost of its bread service. Instead, a handful of the many good things I've heard about Roost from people are compliments on that delicious bread.
Six dollars or not.