Should Restaurants Charge For Bread?

I say no. Some disagree.

By Eat Beat Team November 4, 2009

Enjoy your bread, but it might cost you

Dear local restaurateurs,

Although I feel grateful to you for improving my quality of life and making me so happy so much of the time, sometimes I admit feeling estranged by your wacky high jinks. Take yesterday, when I was enjoying soup at a certain downtown restaurant that’s located in a hip hotel. When I asked for bread (because one cannot possibly enjoy soup without bread), I was not informed that three tiny slices would be charged to my bill. It was, and the way I figure, I paid approximately 25 cents per bite of a baguette that cost a restaurant almost nothing.

Now as a self-employed man myself, I understand the need to cover costs. High-quality bread, like pork chops, hanger steak, duck liver, celery root, and other fine ingredients does cost money. That said, why charge for a tiny amount of flour, yeast, water, and salt when hardly any restaurants do? Are you trying to make a statement? Are you trying to change the way the world works? Would you prefer that I lick my plate in order to extract the last remaining bits of sauce, soup, or mussel broth from the delicious item recently devoured?

At most restaurants in Portland, bread, like water and napkins, remains free. At three of my favorite restaurants, Clyde Common, Park Kitchen, and Beaker and Flask, it costs between $2 and $3.50. Bread will set you back a dollar at Navarre, where I don’t mind as much paying for it because it arrives in a large increment (Five cents per bite at the most).

Fair to say, Portland bakers have upped the bread ante in the last decade with master bakers like Tim Healea (Little T’s) and Ken Forkish (Ken’s Artisan Bakery) arriving on the scene. Small dollar amounts for bread are quite nominal when one considers the skill it takes to produce a perfect bun, loaf, or round. So perhaps by not charging for it we might be undervaluing our local artisans.

That’s one argument, but consider this.

I have never been charged for bread at Higgins, Paley’s, or Ten 01. I’ve eaten probably 30 hamburgers at Castagna over the years, and Castagna has said a quiet thank you by bringing 30 or more plates of free bread. Bread has never showed up on my bill at any of David Machado’s restaurants (Lauro, Vindalho, Nel Centro), and Bluehour has survived a decade without assigning a monetary value to its pleasant and uniformly leavened rolls. Nostrana routinely stuffs with me slices of its own rustic loaves and aromatic rosemary focaccia. With the two dollars I don’t spend on bread, I order an espresso with my butterscotch budino.

Truth is, I’m really not too worked up over this, just curious. In the business of food writing, one quickly learns to choose battles carefully. And in the grander scheme, I know I’m not the guy with the ledger at the end of the month, the one finding ways to keep employees happy and fed.

I’m just a guy who loves free bread.

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