“When I’m at a restaurant,” says chef Mark Mendez, “I’m there for the food, not for the bread.” With this position Mendez seems to be in the minority: Now more than ever, bread has become a high-profile part of the restaurant experience. Bread is now a seasonal offering (sometimes changing daily), crafted by in-house bakers and/or paired with housemade condiments. And because of this, these breads are not being given away for free at the beginning of the meal—they’re being sold like any other dish on the menu.
For restaurateurs, this is an economic decision. Mendez, who sells a loaf of bread with three butters and olive oil for $6 at his West Loop restaurant Vera, notes he couldn’t give bread away, because, as a small plates restaurant, “I need people to not fill up” on something free. Jared Van Camp, the chef-partner at Nellcôte who charges $3 for his bread plate, puts it like so: “Operators try to spend as little money as they can on [bread], so it becomes an afterthought.” Charging for it, on the other hand, allows Van Camp to spend some time on the bread, which he makes with flour he mills in Nellcôte’s basement.
Are people insulted that they’re being charged for water and flour? Apparently not. “Most people don’t complain,” Mendez says. “What they usually complain about is when they want more.”