A bit rich for some: the rise of £100-a-head meals

The authors of Harden's London Restaurants said four establishments in the capital were now charging a three-figure price for three courses, plus half a bottle of house wine, coffee and service - compared to just one last year.

At the top-end restaurants, inflation of menu prices is running at 5.7 per cent - almost three times that of general consumer inflation. This is due mainly to increased staff costs and the enhanced spending power of City executives, Harden's claims.

The guide's editors said that quoting the prices was not a criticism as they reflected increases in the industry's main cost item - staff. Further inflationary pressure was building due to bonuses being paid in the financial sector.

Sketch, which was criticised in a previous Harden's guide for inflated prices, is joined this year in the £100-plus category by Le Gavroche, Blakes and Umu, a Japanese restaurant.

Umu opened in the past year and specialises in keiseki, which originates from Kyoto. Set meals start at £60, rising to £200 per person. Sushi costs up to £6 per piece. Eric Kebbab, the restaurant manager at Umu, admitted that, since opening, the establishment had dropped its prices after "taking a hammering". The restaurant has to clear a profit after such staff costs as recruiting a head chef from Tokyo on a salary of up to £80,000 and covering the cost of Mayfair rents and exotic ingredients, such as tiny kinome leaves. Each leaf costs 40p.

"People come here and say it is the best and most authentic food they have had outside Japan," Mr Kebbab said. "It is also considerably cheaper than the equivalent in Japan where you could expect to pay up to £300."

London's most expensive eateries are still cheap compared to their top-of-the-range counterparts in New York and Paris which charge up to £150 and £300 respectively for the equivalent meals.

Average restaurant prices across all levels rose by 4 per cent last year and the average cost per head of all London restaurants in the guide was £36.82 compared with £35.79 the previous year.

Editors of the guide, which is compiled from restaurants reviews of 8,000 members of the public, are convinced that the London restaurant business is reaching the peak of a six-year cycle. They claim evidence for this is provided by a sharp rise in the number of restaurant openings, by eight to 142. In the same year only 67 restaurants closed, compared with 82 in the previous guide and 113 before that.

Richard Harden, the co-editor of the guide, predicted good health for the sector for another 18 months. He added that the east of the capital may become a hot spot of growth in fine dining towards the end of the decade due to investment related to the Olympic Games.

Mr Harden said: "Despite the current tough times for retailers, it would seem that there are still plenty of people able and willing to eat out, without too much concern about rising menu prices.

"Overall, the London restaurant scene has enjoyed something of a boom over the past 12 months, having seen record levels of openings, and the top end of the market, in particular, is flourishing.

"This is evidenced both by the growing number of top-end restaurants, and by the way in which existing restaurants have been able to hike their prices, in some cases significantly."

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