That’s the question journalist M.W. Mount poses in the March 8, 1908, issue of the New York Daily Tribune. And the answer, according to William C. Muschenheim, owner of the Hotel Astor, is yes. Our hypothetical diner could easily reach $100 if a guest “calls for a highly priced fish, which is brought there at a great cost and difficulty from its home in the Caspian Sea; for ptarmigan, from the Arctic; a delicate bird from Brazil and rare fruit from Java, with costly fresh Russian caviar.” Already, the costs accumulating. These ingredients are rare and difficult to transport, but Muschenheim continues, “Let the meal be opened by green turtle soup made with fine wine, and continue with diamondback terrapin, canvasback duck and side dishes and sauces concocted by the most expensive articles out of season on the market. Such a menu could easily amount to $100 . . . wines and cigars would make an additional $50 bill dissolve like gelatine [sic].” Incidentally, some kind of fancy gelatin dish would be one of the dinner courses too.
This was an elaborate meal – one rare fish, two rare birds, two kinds of turtle, duck, caviar, fruit, and sides. All that’s missing is a partridge in a pear tree. By comparison, the average restaurant dinner in 1908 cost between $10-15, and even that would have been out of reach for most people. But for wealthy Americans, multi-course meals – prepared by one’s cook at home or eaten at a club or restaurant – were status symbols, like fine clothing or big mansions.
Today, it’s easy hit $100 or more per person in most fine dining restaurants, but Mount’s $100 in 1908 has the purchasing power of $3400 in 2023. It would be hard, if not impossible, to spend that much per person at any restaurant today without dipping into expensive vintages from the wine list. Even then it would be a stretch in most restaurants, but there are some that try.
A few years ago, videos circulated about the world’s most expensive dessert, a $1000 dollar sundae created by Serendipity III in New York City. The restaurants Golden Opulence Sundae earned the Guinness Book of World Records title for most expensive dessert in 2004. Three scoops of Tahitian vanilla ice cream covered in edible 23K gold leaf form the base of the sundae. This is garnished with chunks of Chuao chocolate, exotic candied fruits from Paris, gold coated almonds, chocolate truffles, marzipan cherries, and a small dish of Grand Passion Caviar, a dessert caviar infused with passion fruit, orange, and Armagnac liqueur.
In 2007, Serendipity III beat their own world record with a $25,000 frozen hot chocolate ice cream sundae. That’s a lot of money for dessert, although to be fair it came with a souvenir 18-karat gold and diamond bracelet and a gold diamond encrusted spoon. The Frrrozen Haute Chocolate ice cream sundae beats out the most expensive ice cream ($6696) and most expensive cheesecake ($4,592.42).
Serendipity III is not the only restaurant to envision such expensive, luxury menu items. Industry Kitchen in New York City created a $2700 Golden Pizza, topped with gold leaf, caviar, foie gras, stilton, and white truffles. It also holds the Guinness World Record for most expensive pizza commercially available. Norma, also in New York City, used to sell a $1000 lobster frittata, loaded with pricy caviar. Bourbon & Bones in Scottsdale, Arizona, offered a $35,000 six-course meal, chosen in consultation with the executive chef, that served up to twelve and came with a limo ride. Expensive, but with twelve guests that works out to $2916.66 per person, still below our 1908 dinner.
Like dishes at the turn of the century, these chef’s creations rely not only on expensive and rare ingredients, but also on souvenirs and tableware to drive up the price. The bracelet that comes with Serendipity III’s $25,000 dessert would not have been out of place a hundred years ago. As Mount reported, expensive meals were served in dining rooms decorated with rare plants, fountains, and aquaria, and guests were often sent home with souvenirs such as cigars, or in one case, live birds. This is the problem with newspaper accounts. I want to know more. Who thought that giving guests live birds was a good idea? Did the guests find it delightful, or annoying, or odd? All Mount says is that the birds were given to guests to “carry squawking home,” which makes me think that at least he thought the idea was silly.
There is a point to all this madness. Food is a way to signify status and generate publicity. It doesn’t matter how many $1000 or $25,000 desserts Serendipity III sells. What matters is that their high-priced desserts were picked up by food blogs, news outlets, and YouTubers (my favorite YouTuber Ann Reardon was one of many who recreated the recipe ). In the same way, newspapers in the Gilded Age and Progressive era reported on showy displays of wealth. Mount, for example, mentioned the $15,000 it cost the Vanderbilts to import a chef. Such displays of wealth are shocking. Whether one finds such displays aspirational or ridiculous, they are entertaining.