What's the recipe for dining at one of the world's most expensive restaurants? Months on a waiting list and Herculean wallet strength. Oh, and a healthy appetite. Top-notch restaurants have never been this good.
"I think that for a lot of reasons, we have been going through a world revolution in the improvement of our food at every level," says Tim Zagat, creator and publisher, with his wife Nina, of the New York-based restaurant-rating guide Zagat Survey. "It has to do with fundamentals. You can now get all kinds of foods from all over the world--the ability to pack and ship food is constantly improving. The audience for dining is increasingly sophisticated--someone from Dubuque knows what food in New York, London and Paris restaurants is supposed to look like. Finally, the people doing the cooking have become respected and in some cases celebrities."
One of the best is in Japan. For the second year in a row, the top restaurant on our list of the world's most expensive restaurants is Aragawa, a little steak house in Tokyo's Shinbashi district. Like many of Japan's high-end, hidden restaurants, it doesn't have a Web site or grandiose decor.
But reservations are excruciatingly hard to come by, and the tab reliably starts at $370--per person. But the platters of Wagyu beef (what we call Kobe), which is sourced from only one local farm and served simply with pepper and mustard, make the expense worthwhile.
"In Japan, the whole restaurant business model is completely different," says Mitchell Davis, vice president of communications at the James Beard Foundation in Manhattan. Restaurants are operated like clubs, located in obscure office buildings--and very picky about their customers. "I've sent people for whom money is no object to the best places in Japan, and they can't get in because they are Westerners. And once inside, it's disconcerting. You never know when you're in a particular place if dinner is going to be $50 or $1,000."
"We show up at some ugly, nondescript office building from the 1970s, walk past a fire extinguisher and a cigarette machine, and into this place that presumes to be a $500 sushi restaurant," he says. "Of course, we had 20 one-piece courses, sushi, sashimi, plain as anything, and it was delicious. But it was over $600 per person."
They got off easy.
"In the Japanese food culture, prices can easily run way over $1,000 a person," Zagat says.
For sushi, which is expensive to preserve and prepare, that makes sense. So what explains the price tag at Aragawa, which just serves steak?
"I've seen Wagyu beef for sale at underground grocery stores in Japan," Davis says. "It's $200 a pound. If you're feeding your cows sake and massaging them all day that's what you get."
Of course, you can fork over major dough for your bread in many other countries as well. In China, people pay thousands of dollars for shark fin, abalone and bear paw. And at the three-Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay in London, Zagat surveyors estimated the cost of dinner and an alcoholic beverage for one, plus tip, at close to $200.
But unlike in Asia, European restaurants place more emphasis on the trappings of fine dining, and Gordon Ramsay is no exception. Bouquets of fresh flowers adorn the 13-table dining room, and the menu includes rarefied dishes like pigeon and Cornish lamb. Interested? Pick up your planner: Reservations must be made at least two months in advance.
For our annual list of the world's most expensive restaurants, Forbes.com teamed up with Zagat. First, we chose culinary capital cities outside the U.S. Then Zagat provided us with the name of the most expensive restaurant in each, based on their surveyors' estimates of the cost of dinner with one drink and tip.
Be forewarned: In many cases, the prices listed here, because they don't reflect pricey wine purchases or multiple entrées, are lower than they would be on a typical visit. For cities in which Zagat didn't have specific pricing information, we grilled local concierges at five-star hotels to determine restaurant reputations and obtained pricing information directly from those establishments.
Want to splash out on a meal without buying plane fare? Check back next week for our list of the Most Expensive Restaurants in the US.