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Being a foodie town comes at a cost, Baltimore diners are learning

Are you willing to pay for a $79 steak or a $250 seafood tower? Some Baltimore diners are.

As Baltimore's reputation as a foodie city rises, it's coming at a cost to the dining public. Historically limited to steak houses and select white-tablecloth restaurants, entrees priced at $30-plus are no longer a surprise on many menus as more restaurants open with higher price points.

Fettuccine nero with lobster, $38, and a grilled whole bronzino, $36, ring in near the top of the price range on Cosima's menu.

At Points South Latin Kitchen, a duck leg and breast confit entree goes for $38, while a crab avocado yucca cake appetizer sells for $16.

Yet these pricey plates are some of the restaurants' best sellers.

It's a testament to local consumer demand for higher-quality food, said Janet Wagner, director for the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

"It's clear that there are enough people in Baltimore who want to dine at higher-end restaurants, or they wouldn't be opening them," she said. "Restaurants have to balance supply and demand just like any other business. And if there's more consumer demand, then they almost have to raise their price in order to control the traffic, if nothing else."

Higher prices are evident on menus in Baltimore and beyond. From September 2015 to September 2016, menu price inflation nationwide was at 2.4 percent, according to B. Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association's Research and Knowledge Group. Conversely, grocery store prices dropped 2.2 percent over the same period, he said.

The way restaurants determine their prices is hardly based on the cost of food alone.

"From the restaurateur perspective, a lot of that increase driving menu prices relates to labor, but restaurateurs know that consumers are sensitive to any increase in menu prices," Riehle said. "And so consequently they're pretty judicious about how and when they increase menu prices."

Competition is stiff, so restaurants can't change their prices on a whim.

"If that last restaurant experience for a typical consumer didn't meet their expectation for price paid and for value received, they can be quite quick to vote with their feet," Riehle said.

At Alma Cocina Latina in Canton, owner Irena Stein said the complexity of the preparation often determines the price of a dish. Her Venezuelan restaurant aims to appeal to a variety of diners — from those interested in $11 arepas to those who want to savor $36 roasted whole chickens. The most expensive dish on the menu now is a $40 charcuterie plate, but the restaurant has previously served entrees as pricey as $80.

"The idea is to make it diverse," Stein said. "People criss-cross the menu and order from the different sections of the menu."

Perceived value has also driven up prices, restaurateurs and diners say. More restaurants are placing an emphasis on local sourcing, sustainability or high-end imports. And more diners have come to expect quality.

"I think if people believe something is worth it, they'll pay for it," said Alan Hirsch, general manager of Cosima and co-owner of Donna's.

With dinner prices that range from $14 pizzas to a $56 steak, Cosima, like Alma Cocina Latina, straddles the line between fine dining and everyday food. Hirsch said Baltimore is ready for pricier meals.

"There is space in Baltimore for this kind of restaurant," Hirsch said. "There's a lot of people willing to pay."

There has always been some space for high-dollar dining in Baltimore. But even mainstays like the Prime Rib in Mount Vernon, for example, have upped their prices. In 2009, entrees at the Prime Rib ran as high as $42, according to Baltimore Sun reviews; now its most expensive steak is $69.

"When you price, the first thing you have to think about is customer demand, and one thing is price sensitivity," said Wagner of the University of Maryland. "And it's pretty clear that there's a good segment of the population in Baltimore that is not price-sensitive when it comes to restaurants."

A glance at some of the city's newer restaurants indicates that. Shareable shellfish towers at Loch Bar in Harbor East cost as much as $250. Aromes opened last year offering strictly prix-fixe meals at $45 for three courses or $65 for six. And one of the steaks at Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group's brand-new Bar Vasquez runs $79.

Bryson Keens, owner of Points South Latin Kitchen, said he sees the occasional complaint on Yelp that the food at his Fells Point restaurant is too expensive. Based on his experience — he was previously managing partner at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion — he thinks about a third of diners are very price-conscious and a third aren't fazed by the cost of a meal.

"You've got foodies in this town that are willing to search out this food that is well prepared; they're willing to pay for it," Keens said.

Chris Franzoni, who documents his eating adventures on the Instagram account EatmoreBaltimore, is one of them. He said higher prices haven't disuaded him from going out to eat, though it has made a dent in his wallet. He said he goes out for dinner four to six times per week.

"Even when I just go out to grab something quick, I end up spending $40 or $50 or even more on an appetizer and an entree — more if you tack on a cocktail," he said.

He, too, sees the quality of Baltimore's restaurants improving.

"I think Baltimore is catching up with a lot of other bigger local cities like D.C. and Philadelphia," he said.

Lena Tashjian still sees Baltimore as more reasonably priced than other major metropolitan cities, though the rising prices have given her pause. Tashjian, an English teacher at City College, dines out at least twice a week.

"It does make me more prone to thinking about where I'm going and when I'm going," she said. "There are definitely some places that feel outrageous, and there's no need to go and spend hundreds of dollars."

She looks for ways to experience fine dining without paying the full price, such as happy hours, pasta nights and brunch specials.

Jessica Formicola, owner of the blog Savory Experiments and a freelance food writer in Baltimore, sees higher prices as reflective of a better culinary scene — one that moves beyond burgers and nachos and crabs.

"I don't think that everybody's ready for it, but I think that those who are foodies are really OK with it," Formicola said. "If we want better food and we want better chefs, then we have to be willing to pay for it."

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