At Mischa in Manhattan, a sleek new banker canteen, one might expect black truffles or osetra caviar to come in as the most wallet-busting appetizers. As it happens, there’s none of that here. The priciest starter is something more ostensibly ordinary: shrimp cocktail. It’s a dish that, while rarely cheap, has historically served as an accessible indulgence on American restaurant menus.
Alas, here on the ground floor of Citigroup Center, four fat Australian tiger prawns will cost diners $29, or closer to $37 after tax and tip. It makes for an expensive snack, even for corporate types. And Mischa isn’t alone in this regard.
Remember when burgers first started creeping past $25? Well, the $30 shrimp cocktail is starting to come for us too. As labor shortages, food costs, and other inflationary forces make dining out more expensive, shrimp cocktail is transforming into a proper splurge at steakhouses, brasseries, taverns, chic oyster bars, and elsewhere. It’s happening in New York, but in cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver too.
Alex Stupak, the imaginative chef behind the New York–based restaurant group Empellón, adds a big twist to his own version. He doesn’t use a whisper of the standard ketchup or horseradish in his sauce, which arrives in a small saucer on ice. Instead, he mashes up crab innards and laces them with shrimp paste and chiles.
The chef said during a phone interview that the dish is poorly priced—not because it’s too expensive, but rather the opposite. The cost of preparing it is high enough that a chef could legitimately charge even more for it, he says. Though he does not have plans to hike the price, food costs generally make up about 30 percent of a dish’s cost to the consumer; in the case of his shrimp cocktail, the materials make up nearly 50 percent.
At least one New York spot does charge more. At the chic Corner Bar in lower Manhattan, six Caledonian prawns—one could practically inhale them like french fries—cost $36. Le Rock in Midtown charges a mere $27, though that buys just three modest-size blue prawns and some horseradish-laced mayo; as a bonus the tasty fried heads are served separately. Anyone who remembers paying $17 for a single half pound of shrimp at Prime & Provisions in Chicago before the pandemic will learn that the current asking price is $25 for two, while Leo’s Oyster Bar in San Francisco has shot up over $10 over the years to $29. And at the Denver location of Ocean Prime, the price is now $28. At the steakhouse’s New York location, the dish costs $31.
A bit of context: The prices of so many restaurant dishes are rising as inflation continues to jam up the US economy. Russia’s war against Ukraine has ratcheted up grain prices, translating to $5 slices of pizza, with pepperoni hikes turning pizza into a spendier affair. Fuel costs and supply chain issues have made omakase sushi more exorbitant, and droughts out West should ensure higher beef prices throughout the country for some time. In fact, dining out generally costs 21 percent more now than right before the COVID shutdown, according to Department of Labor data. That means a $200 meal from a few years ago could run about $242 now. By that math, hiking up the cost of a shrimp cocktail by a few bucks makes sense. Yet amid all of this, global shrimp prices are still way down from a decade ago when diseased shrimp caused a spike in markets.