When I voiced that I found the concept self contradictory on Twitter, it set off a stream of comments, a bit of which stopped short of saying that I am biased against fine dining establishments. Amongst some of the lighthearted jabs and sprinkling of vitriol, there was one question which I took very much to heart: Is there a meal in Houston which I think is worth more than $20?
Intrigued by the thought, I did an informal set of interviews among people I encountered for the next few days, asking them if there was a meal they felt was worth at least $20 in Houston. The answers informed me as to what people considered in what is value for their dollar when dining out. Most people will gladly pay more than that just for good wine. Taking drinks out of the equation, most immediately mentioned steak or sushi as being worthy of the greater than $20 tab. A few mentioned being willing to pay for exceptional service, but not if the food was mediocre. Just a couple mentioned paying for the exceptional skill of the chef - and what better demonstration of skill is there than to take a really humble ingredient and make it transcendent in its final form - although put on the spot, the people who mentioned this couldn't specifically name a Houston area chef.
Truth be told, good seasonal ingredients are cheap and easy to come by in multicultural and prosperous Houston, and classic simple treatments of these ingredients result in fantastic meals without much effort. Which means that we have a fair population of local inexpensive restaurants with great food, and "fine dining" establishments (whatever that means) are hard pressed to provide additional value for the higher prices under most circumstances, moreso in the current economic climate.