NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 13, 2006

Meals in a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris can cost $300 or $400 a person, not including wine.  How could food become so expensive?  According to the Society for Quantitative Gastronomy (founded by a group of young French economists), status and image -- not just food -- play an increasing role in high restaurant prices.

The expense of fine dining has been rising for decades:

  • From 1950 to 2005, the prices of the highest-quality Parisian meals -- defined by the Michelin dining guide categories "very comfortable" to "luxury" -- rose a startling 216.8 percent in real terms, adjusting for inflation.
  • By contrast, adjusted for inflation, regular nonluxury food became cheaper in that period; that's why we can afford to eat so much.

In addition, the price gap between the most highly rated Parisian restaurants and the average Parisian restaurant has increased steadily:

  • The most highly regarded restaurants have continued to improve their design, décor and level of comfort, again as measured by the Michelin dining guides.
  • In the first half of the 20th century, it was not hard to get highly regarded Parisian food without also paying for the accompanying fineries and status, but that is no longer the case.
  • Receiving a Michelin star increases prices in a Parisian restaurant by 20 percent.

In contrast, it remains easier to get good cheap food in the United States, if only by looking to the growing number of ethnic restaurants, most of which stand outside formal ranking systems.  Labor laws that are more flexible than those in France also support more dining options in the United States.  Most Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris are closed on Sundays, and many are closed on Saturdays as well.  Labor costs are the major culprit, says Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Source: Tyler Cowen, "In the Language of Gastronomy, Those Michelin Stars Translate as Dollar Signs," New York Times, July 13, 2006; and Christian Barrère, Véronique Chossat and Florine Livat, "A Paradigm Change in Taste Industries?" OMI, Université de Reims and Bordeaux Management School, June 2006.

For text (subscription required):


Browse more articles on Economic Issues