You've read about them before: the $750 cupcake and $5,000 burger you can find in Las Vegas; the $10,000 martini on sale in West Hollywood. Some people must be ordering them and feeling like it was money well spent. Lots of others will file those dishes under the Ripped-off-at-a-Restaurant category.
On the other end of the spectrum is a new model that's gaining traction across the country and around the world: pay-what-you-want spots. You make the call on the price of the dish, and when you pay a little extra it helps feed people who are in need. Right on for the places below.
Panera Cares Cafés; St. Louis and other locations; @panerabread
The nationwide bakery chain has five stores around the country with a suggested donation amount instead of prices (in Dearborn, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; Chicago, Boston and St. Louis, if you want to get to one). The menu is the same as at all Panera's restaurants: lots of soups and sandwiches, like a roast turkey and avocado BLT, and broccoli-cheddar soup. Anyone who can't pay the suggested donation amount has the option of volunteering at the café in exchange for his or her sandwiches. paneracares.org/locations.
SAME Café; Denver; @samecafe
There's no cash register at SAME (So All May Eat), Denver's only nonprofit restaurant. Instead there's a donation box, and a daily changing, seasonal menu that focuses on local, organic ingredients. If you went to SAME recently, you might have had the bacon, date and bleu cheese pizza, the white bean and kale salad or creamy garlic soup. soallmayeat.org.
JBJ Soul Kitchen; Red Bank, NJ; @JBJSoulFound
A lot of superstars open restaurants so they have a place to hang out with their friends and drink fancy Champagne. Jon Bon Jovi had a different idea. In 2011, his Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation launched JBJ Soul Kitchen in an airy garage-style space in his home state. There are no prices on the menu; JBJ suggests a $10 donation to cover the cost of a three-course meal, and there's the option of washing dishes, serving, cleaning or stocking instead. The food sounds seriously delicious, for instance, shredded slow-cooked beef stew with olives, carrots and onions over rice, or vegetarian chili with house chips and sour cream. jbjsoulkitchen.org.
ComeUnity Café; Jackson, TN; @ComeUnityCafe
As the name suggests, this pay-what-you-can café is all about supporting the local community. The menu changes daily, with options like a Sausalito turkey with cilantro pesto sandwich, and green chile and pinto bean soup; the café uses local produce whenever possible. The menu is updated constantly on Facebook, where they have more than 2,000 likes. https://www.facebook.com/ComeUnityCafe If you can't pay for your meal or simply wish to help out, there's the option of working in ComeUnity's community garden. comeunitycafe.com.
Meanwhile, outside the US
De Culinaire Werkplaats; Amsterdam
This stunning experimental Amsterdam restaurant and design studio is a little different from most other pay-what-you-can restaurants. Founders Marjolein Wintjes and Eric Meursing wanted to create a unique dining experience that will make diners question their food. Rather than a traditional menu, they create seasonal "inspirational concepts" with whimsical names likes Water, the New Champagne? and Eating Architects. While alcohol and drinks have fixed prices, you can pay whatever you think the food is worth. The current menu includes dishes like Water (bouillon, fennel, black olive, tomato, potato and sour cream) and Pearls (black quinoa, black beans, truffle, potato, black carrot and lemon). deculinairewerkplaats.nl.
Lentil as Anything; Various Locations, Australia
This Australian vegetarian mini chain has been around for 13 years, and focuses on creating community and promoting multiculturalism and social justice. In addition to serving pay-what-you-can lunch and dinner daily (and breakfast at a few of the locations), they also offer catering and plenty of volunteer opportunities. The menu changes often; you might find dishes like Thai yellow curry with vegetables, pickled vegetable salad or leek and potato pie. lentilasanything.com.