Affordable Luxury: Where To Eat Michelin-Starred Meals In The U.S. On A Budget
It might sound like something of an oxymoron, but affordable luxury is a real thing. In much the same way as more expensive can, and often does, spill over into kitsch (think Salt Bae and the ludicrously priced 24-carat gold leaf encrusted tomahawk steaks), luxury doesn’t have to be outrageously priced.
When it comes to indulgent eating, the Michelin Guide is the only guide for many gastronomes. Forbes Advisor researched the most affordable Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S. and the results are encouraging for economical epicureans. The revered guide has for time immemorial served as a foodie wish list, but typically the more stars an eatery has, the heftier the bill. There are, however, exceptions to this rule with a smattering of places offering Michelin quality at reasonable prices.
The One Stars: Lowest Three-Course Meal from $38
State Bird Provisions, San Francisco
Coming at a wallet-pleasing $38 is San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions. Initially granted a Michelin star in 2014, the Fillmore district restaurant continues to delight diners, not least because it’s now the most affordable Michelin-starred restaurant in the U.S. The menu is made up of seasonal, regional produce and products in a bistro setting but in a decidedly dim sum style with waiters wandering around with trays and trolleys of food that you pick, a la carte, as they walk by. At the time of writing the three dishes that made up the $38 meal included a Hog Island sweetwater oyster with kohlrabi kraut and sesame; CA state bird (a Wolfe Ranch quail) with provisions; and melon granita, noyeaux tapioca, cassis and elderflower. Although the atmosphere is casual, it’s seasonal cooking at its finest, served up in a rotating menu of tasty bites.
Claro, New York
Mexican restaurant Claro is a close runner-up in the affordable one-star category with a three-course brunch menu for $48. Executive chef T.J. Steele first brought his brand of Oaxacan food in 2018 to the Gowanus area of Brooklyn and was recognized by Michelin with inclusion in the 2019 guide. The brunch menu consists of several options for each course, making it more versatile at this price point than other restaurants. A sample menu could include a Yukon Gold potato empanada with caramelized onion and sour cream to start; a chicken leg and thigh mole rojo with mustard greens and crema; and a churro with cajeta, a Mexican caramel sauce. Notably, the entire restaurant is gluten-free and all the sausages and cheese are made in-house.
Don Angie, New York
Husband-and-wife team Scott Tacinelli and Angie Rito serve up Italian-American classics with a modern twist in their smart-casual Greenwich Village restaurant. Think stuffed garlic flatbread and Caesar-inspired chrysanthemum salad, served by an attentive waitstaff as they glide across the checkerboard floor. A three-course tasting menu starts at $52 and may include such treasures as a prosciutto and papaya appetizer and sourdough pasta cacciatore.
The Three Stars: Three Course Lunch Menu From $120
If dining at a Michelin star restaurant is a foodie’s dream, experiencing a three-star restaurant is the holy grail and for many a once-in-a-lifetime treat. With tasting menus routinely costing upwards of $500, these restaurants are usually out of reach. However, there are a few that buck that trend by offering reasonably-priced menus, relatively speaking.
Le Bernardin, New York
Le Bernardin is a legendary name in culinary circles for its decadent French seafood preparations. Its also-legendary chef Eric Ripert has hewed closely to the original founders and siblings Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze’s philosophy that the fish should be the star of the plate. The prix fixe menu consists of one dish from each of three categories: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, and Lightly Cooked. Consider perhaps lightly smoked sea trout tartare with Meyer lemon jelly, black pepper crisp, and a vodka crème fraîche; followed by poached lobster; summer vegetable medley with a miso-sake lobster broth; and steamed halibut with confit baby potatoes, truffled-fine herbs and sauce vierge. Although Le Bernardin isn’t known for affordability, at the time of writing a three-course lunch at this Midtown mainstay could be had for $120 (the most affordable dinner is a four-course dinner for $195).
Eleven Madison Avenue, New York
Matching Le Bernardin’s dinner deal and aesthetic excellence, the entirely plant-based Eleven Madison Avenue offers a bar tasting menu for $195. In 2021 Chef Daniel Humm made the controversial move to eschew meat and dairy for a plant-based menu. Taking inspiration from Zen Buddhist chefs, the restaurant thoroughly reimagines what you think of as vegan. Although the change has been met with criticism by some, the Art Deco-inspired restaurant overlooking Madison Park is still the site of food pilgrimages for many people, and the six-course, bar tasting menu makes the restaurant much more accessible than it would otherwise be.
Per Se, New York
You may be more familiar with French Laundry, but Thomas Keller’s Manhattan outlet Per Se has maintained its three Michelin stars since the introduction of the New York City Guide in 2006. That consistency cements its legendary status and makes the five-course Salon Tasting Menu sound like something of a bargain at $245. Although the menu changes daily, Keller’s signature Oysters and Pearls dish, a confection of tapioca and oysters, remains a near-constant. The views of Central Park are as magnificent as the dining room is elegant and are a wonderful bonus.
Even though these deals are, at the moment, as good as it gets when it comes to affordable high-end dining in the U.S., they can be made even more appealing by using a credit card that caters specifically to diners. With the 70th percentile of American households spending over $4,500 per year on dining, people who dine regularly at Michelin restaurants could easily reach and more than likely surpass this amount. This means that the rewards earned through a dining-specific credit card—whether in the form of cash back or points—can add up quickly. With credit card options out there offering up to 5% cash back or 4 points per dollar spent on dining, treating yourself has never been so rewarding.
The Forbes Advisor study carried out in July 2022 looked at one, two and three star Michelin restaurants in the U.S. to determine the least expensive three-course meal (or equivalent i.e., set sushi or prix fixe tapas menus). Restaurants that offered a non-traditional menu, such as tapas or sushi, had to offer a fixed price menu to be considered. Such menus that did not offer a fixed price were excluded, to avoid unfair comparison. Restaurants without a menu or prices lists online were excluded.