The Free Bread Basket: A Lost Art?


Bread, glorious bread. (Photo: Jakob Layman)

After fighting traffic, paying to park, and shelling out $13 for a craft cocktail while you wait 90 minutes for a seat thanks to your restaurant of choice’s no-reservation policy, that steamy bread basket hits your table. There is perhaps nothing that makes a ravenous diner happier.

Those coveted carbs aren’t necessarily a given anymore, at least not for free, as restaurants try to scale back waste and cut costs.

Olive Garden, famous for its promise of never-ending breadsticks, came under fire by investor Starboard this week for serving too many. The well-known chain serves an average of three breadsticks per customer, for an estimated total of 700 million a year, “massive unnecessary waste,” according Starboard. Olive Garden’s parent company Darden responded by insisting that all those breadsticks are part of the company’s tradition of “Italian generosity.”

Perhaps, but as restaurateurs look for creative ways to combat ever-increasing expenses, more and more are shying away from that good old-fashioned generosity when it takes the shape of the iconic bread basket. “The industry is trying to figure out how to deal with all of their rising food costs,” according to Joe Spinelli, president of Restaurant Consultants, Inc., who says that charging for a basket of bread can help offset costs without losing customers. “I haven’t seen anything to indicate that people aren’t going to go to a restaurant because they have to pay for bread.”

The good news is that, in most cases, the bread you’re being charged for isn’t just a plain-old sliced loaf but rather a house-baked creation served with gourmet accoutrements.

Etta’s, a seafood spot in Seattle,  charges $3 for a plate of bread served with butter, olive tapenade, and fleur de sel. At Houston’s Roost, $6 will get you a “slow dough” loaf, and two accompaniments, ranging from a pimento cheese spread to cookie-dough butter. New York City’s Momofuku Ssam Bar offers one of the higher-priced plates we found, asking $8 for bread paired with sea-salt butter and whipped lardo.

Barnyard in Los Angeles has charged $4 for grilled bread, served alongside a trio of Dijon mustard, Wisconsin butter, and house-made preserves, since it opened in 2012. Chef Jesse Barber says he does this to help keep the prices of other menu items reasonable, and while there was some initial pushback from customers, most deem the expense well worth it now. “Most tables get two orders,” Barber says. “It by far outsells our other items.”

Spinelli believes “the trend is only going to continue. And you’ll find you might be paying for specialty sauces and condiments that used to be free, too.”

Next up, a ketchup charge? Let’s hope not.