Can restaurants leave prices off their menus?

Befuddled in Boston after a cafe’s choice not to disclose prices left a bad taste

While our posts tend to focus on reflections or recommendations that hopefully encourage you to share your experiences in the comments, on social media, or via email afterwards, this time I’ll lead with a genuine question and a couple of follow-ups: Have you ever eaten somewhere that simply didn’t list prices? If so, where and what were the circumstances? How did you feel? Did you ask questions before ordering or wait until the bill arrived to find out the tally?

I’m not referring to a flat-rate all-you-can-eat buffet or a prix fixe where you agree to the price by taking your seats or a sandwich order at a deli where you don’t bother to look until you pay. And neither am I thinking of various give-what-you-can models shaped by political or social motivations. I mean, literally, a full menu on display at a trendy-enough spot where your sandwich or pizza or salad could be $5 or $15, or why not, $25 or even more.

The reason for this question: While visiting my family in Boston recently, Cathlin and I left Eliza with her grandparents inside the Prudential Center while we snuck half a block away to Jaho Coffee Roaster & Wine Bar on Huntington Ave. for a quick date. (Really, Cathlin was just eager for a bubble tea, and there was a handwritten chalkboard sign advertising exactly this outside the cafe.) I suppose it wouldn’t have seemed out of the ordinary if the cost of a drink were absent from an otherwise detailed menu; however, there were no prices on any items. 

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The priceless menu at Jaho’s location on Huntington Ave. in Boston

Founded in Salem, Mass., Jaho now has one cafe there, three in Boston, and two in Tokyo. I contacted the company by email afterwards to understand any context behind this practice, which appears to date back at least to 2014; however, I didn’t receive a reply before our deadline. If I do hear back, I’ll update this post to include their perspective.

I’m willing to entertain arguments that there’s a less-unlikable reason here, but given the trendiness of the cafe, Cathlin and I were both left feeling that the intended statement could only be that money doesn’t really matter—as in, you as the diner should have enough of it that you don’t care about the cost of whatever we the restaurant sell you. So it got us thinking: first of all, is this common? Second of all, is it even legal?

But before digging in, I took a few moments to reflect on my own assumptions about dining out.

  • During our travels over the past year, Cathlin and I ate at plenty of restaurants where we did quick currency calculations to gauge the pricing of menu items in U.S. dollars. In South Korea, we divided our orders in won by about a thousand. In Poland, whatever our meals cost in złoty we knew our bank accounts back home would process the price at about one-quarter the amount. The estimates were imperfect, but helpful all the same.

  • Once during a connection at Oslo Airport, I swiped my credit card for a latte in between flights, without an internet connection to check the exchange rate against the kroner. I later learned when my credit card bill arrived that my coffee had run into “I never ever would have done this” territory, at nearly US$14. It tasted divine, but what a bitter finish!

  • In Istanbul years ago, my friend Jaron and I fell victim once to what felt after the fact like an obvious scam: we ordered a meal from a menu that listed one price only to find that our bill was exceptionally higher than expected. When we asked to see the menu again, alas: they gave us a different menu that listed exceptionally higher prices.

  • I can recall a few meals in New York City over the past decade where an unordered entrée “accidentally” snuck onto our receipt, especially after a bottle of wine. And once a Brooklyn bar we loved ran my credit card for a $20.50 bill, including tip, by relocating the digits to a surprise only detailed on my credit card statement: $52.00. (Note: Remember to look at your bill before paying and review your credit card statements.) Typically raising the issue with an employee or manager will resolve the inaccuracy quickly, though it does take a toll on your interest in returning.

  • Some restaurants host online menus on their websites that exclude prices altogether, which I dislike but understand their rationale. They assume you’ll decide to dine in based on the meals rather than the costs, but that decision alone tends to hint at the price range.

  • I’ve certainly been to enough bars where the drink prices are either absent or else listed somewhere inconvenient, but typically you can ask the bartender the price of a pint without difficulty. And yes, there are often times a jar of baked goods beside a cash register at a cafe stands unlabeled, but these impulse buys are also often off-menu.
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Food costs can feel upside down for restaurants and customers alike, but a Noino?!

So all of that is to say that no, menu pricing isn’t always as precise an experience as I tend to assume it is, but not knowing the price of a single item or even an entire category of items feels like an exception to the general rule that menus include prices because that detail might matter.

(I’m suddenly having flashbacks to a drink menu, unpriced yet tremendously overpriced, at TGIF Friday’s in Midtown Manhattan before seeing Frozen at a movie theater in Times Square. This may have been at Cathlin’s and several friends’ request, but I went along without complaint.)

I dug up Marketplace’s reporting back in 2011 on the creative ways restaurants hide costs from their diners and learned from Atlas Obscura about the history of menus at certain restaurants being priced only for men. It’s helpful to remember that Massachusetts and several other U.S. states and territories have regulatory agencies dedicated to consumer affairs that require item pricing at food and grocery stores. (If you ever get annoyed when that tub of hummus or jar of pasta sauce you picked up at one price rings up at another higher price at the cash register, you’ll definitely want to read up on the law.) But I still haven’t had luck finding anything about explicit guidelines and consequences when it comes to price labeling at restaurants, though there’s no shortage of information and opinion related to nutrition labeling on restaurant menus.

As for Jaho specifically, the employee who took our order didn’t know the price of the bubble tea when Cathlin asked (mainly to point out the strangeness of not seeing it listed). She had to ring it up in the register preemptively to find out. We proceeded to place the order, and while we waited for a bubble tea that was tasty but more akin to a slushy, I reflected on which menu items I would have chosen to order if I were making that choice without thinking about prices, and how that list would almost certainly differ if I knew the prices. But the place was packed on the cold Sunday afternoon, with hardly any seats free. Perhaps the cafe wagered correctly that enough potential customers simply don’t care about cost that they’re fine to lose those who do.

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Even the Louisiana Children’s Museum includes prices on its shelves of fake bread

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