It might seem that getting a four-star New York Times review, as Thomas Keller’s Per Se did last week, would be fabulous per se: By garnering the first perfect score from new restaurant critic Frank Bruni (who wrote he was “ineffably sad” on finishing his last bite of risotto), Per Se joins an elite group: Alain Ducasse, Daniel, Le Bernardin, and Jean Georges. But restaurateurs say four stars can in some ways be a burden.
Running such a restaurant “is a financial commitment because a lot of expenses go up,” says Daniel Boulud, who received four stars at Le Cirque and Daniel. The cost of maintaining a place in the top tier far exceeds the economic rewards—but it’s the only way to avoid the embarrassment of being stripped of hard-earned laurels. (As Boulud knows: He’s lost and regained the top rating at Daniel.) Per Se, which has only sixteen tables, would likely have been booked solid every night anyway. But perfection (like the best foie gras) keeps profit margins tight. Restaurants typically spend around $30 on food for every $100 in revenue; a four-star might spend up to $40. Then there are the non-food costs: Boulud recently spent $100,000 replacing chairs. They weren’t worn out; they were simply five years old.
But don’t pity the four-star chef. He can write a cook- book, or open non-four-star restaurants, à la Jean-Georges Vongerichten, which make money by association. And since Keller’s first place in the city, Rakel (two stars, 1987), didn’t make it, there’s always the sweet taste of revenge.