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It’s not your imagination. It is getting more expensive to eat out

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By Globe Staff 

It’s the pricey salads in the downtown lunch places that get to Robert Hughes, a private banker. “You get this premade salad — the Subway of salads — and you think, ‘This is not a $12 salad.’ ”

Lauren Beckham Falcone has what might be called a “chicken parm problem.” She orders it — or some equally nongourmet item — at a nonchef-driven restaurant, “and the check is never less than $60, even if it’s just me and my daughter.”

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“I’m paying $18.99 for things I could make at home for $5,” said Falcone, a morning personality on WROR.

“If you have wine or cocktails, the check goes to $100 in the blink of an eye,” said Margaret Waterman, a digital communications associate at Boston University.

Industry analysts don’t have a formal way to measure how expensive a restaurant meal feels to the diner. No one is counting how many times the following sentence is uttered each Saturday night: “I could have roasted this half chicken myself for a quarter of the price.”

But the head of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, Bob Luz, recently provided the Globe a statistic that helps explain today’s check-induced sticker shock.

Over the past 20 months, menu prices in the state have risen 2.5 percent on average, while the cost of groceries has dropped 4.5 percent, according to Luz.

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Bob Luz, head of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, says the gap between menu prices and grocery costs is the highest he can remember.

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That’s a seven-point gap — the highest it’s been since Luz can remember. The number is one that the industry watches closely because when it gets too big, potential customers start doing the math.

As Luz himself put it: “It could make people start to think twice about grabbing a bite on a Tuesday lunch or a Wednesday evening.”

A national report on the health of the industry, by the NPD Group, found that high prices are taking a toll, with business flat or down by 1 percent.

The “weakness” started in 2016 when labor costs started to rise, analyst Bonnie Riggs said. “So they increased restaurant prices quarter after quarter to the point where consumers have said, ‘It’s not a good value, it’s cheaper to eat at home.’ ”

But in Massachusetts customers aren’t — yet — staying away, according to Luz of the restaurant association. Business at the majority of his member restaurants ranged from flat over last year to up by as much as 4 percent, he said. But larger chains, especially those in malls, aren’t doing as well as local independents that focus on quality.

Indeed, much of the griping is triggered less by the price of a meal than by its perceived value. It’s one thing to pay $160 for dinner for two at a restaurant with ambience, groovy servers, interesting cocktails, and local, fresh ingredients. It’s another to pay $55 for two warm glasses of white wine and bland appetizers at a spot that screams “hotel lobby.”

Bill Weber, director of alumni communications at Harvard Business School, is like a lot of restaurant patrons (or nonpatrons, as the case may be). “If it will cost four times more for the pleasure or convenience of dining out, you have to convince me it’s worth it,” he said. “Special occasion maybe, but a quick dinner on a weeknight, or weekend, it almost never makes sense.”

Restaurants are facing so many rising expenses that once you learn what they’re up against, you’ll feel lucky your spaghetti pomodoro isn’t $40.

Minimum wage increases, a worker shortage, rising health care costs, and state-mandated paid sick days are driving up labor costs.

In hot neighborhoods, rents for full-service restaurants can be as high as $75 per square foot per year — a 50 percent jump from five years ago, consultant Jonathan Martin says. Fast casual spots, which need less space, can end up paying twice that in rent, he said.

Liquor licenses are running about $350,000 to $375,000 — up from $200,000 a decade ago, Boston attorney and license specialist Kristen Scanlon said.

The artisan cocktail glasses at chef-driven restaurants don’t come cheap, either. “The customer comes in and sees a $14 martini and thinks, ‘This restaurant must be making loads of money, I know what it costs to make a martini,’ ” said Ed Doyle, president of RealFood Consulting.

“But do you really?” he asked. “The glass is $12 and it’s going to get broken after it’s used four times.”

Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe/File 2015

Chef Christopher Coombs, who owns restaurants in Boston such as dbar and Deuxave (above), calls it “irresponsible” to look at menu prices in isolation.

Chef Christopher Coombs, who owns restaurants in Boston such as dbar and Deuxave, calls it “irresponsible” to look at menu prices in isolation.

“I wish I could run a restaurant with all the appetizers under $10 and the entrees in the high 10s or low 20s,” he said, “but I can’t even execute that pricing in Dorchester anymore.”

But justified or not, it all adds up to a lot of money.

A recent survey of mid-market family restaurants, by Doyle, the restaurant consultant, found entrees in the $16 to $24 range — prices that not that long ago were what people didn’t expect to pay in a place with a strip mall vibe.

Look at the prices of a casual place like Tasty Burger, where a bacon cheeseburger costs $6.25, large fries are $3.75, and a shake is $4.75, and a family of four could easily spend more than $60 just grabbing a burger.

Wendy Pierce, a public relations consultant, recently ended up paying $100 per person at a small plates restaurant — “and we didn’t even drink that much,” she said.

“The servers always say, ‘You need to get two or three plates a person,’ and all of a sudden it’s a much bigger investment than you’d planned on.”

But many diners are not so price sensitive.

Jay Leo, manager of Avanti, a Newbury Street salon, doesn’t particularly want to eat out very often, but after a long day’s work, cooking is too much of a bother.

“It seems stupid,” he said. “You used to go out once in a while and it would be a real treat. Now it’s become more of the norm because of our lifestyle, so you get more and more immune to the fact that you’re overpaying.”

Going out for Italian food particularly stings, he said.

“A lot of the Italian restaurants serve what we grew up eating, which was pretty much peasant food. Now I’m paying $28 for it.

“You feel duped,” he said. “But you keep going.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.