Last week, a professor took some of us out to dinner to discuss a paper. This week, a different professor took a different group out to discuss our papers. The first dinner was at a nice local restaurant, the kind of place with a decent wine list and meals that averaged $20. I ordered some kind of lamb cut that came with veggies and mashed potatoes. It was really good. The main problem with that restaurant is that the acoustics are terrible, so it was hard to hear people talking.
This week we went to a Ruby Tuesday's, a chain where dinners are usually about $15. The environment was much better for conversation but the food was fairly bad. I have had better at buffets and cafeterias. I ordered a steak 'medium well' and it came out completely brown and as dry as charcoal. The asparagus was burnt, and the rice had some kind of crusty solidified sauce on top. The lobster tails were okay, though.
I have noticed, in general, that the marginal value of spending a few more dollars on food is huge. There is a huge difference between a $10 meal and a $15 meal (usually) and an even greater difference between a $15 meal and a $20 meal.
This is related to the cost structure of restaurants. A third of their costs are labor, another third are rents and utilities, and the last third is on the food. But those are just averages; if labor and rent is $5 each, a $20 meal will mean that the restaurant spent twice as much on the food, and that typically means a huge jump in quality.
I will only pay for restaurant food when it is unavoidable, like on vacation or trips. And in that situation, when I have to pay the money anyway, I might as well pay a little extra for something that is actually better than, or different from, the stuff that I and my family cook on a regular basis. Unfortunately, there are an increasingly limited number of places that meet that standard.