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Free bread baskets are increasingly hard to come by. We tried to figure out why.

July 31, 2017

Among the greatest joys in life are bread and free things, which is why free bread, particularly at the top of an expensive meal, has been a staple in our society since restaurants were invented. But a disturbing trend has popped up in recent years: less free bread. Trendy restaurants, in particular, seem to eschew the whole idea, choosing instead to turn the carbohydrate staple and its brethren, chips and salsa, into something of an overpriced production. This can yield beautiful results, like the late, great Brucie in Cobble Hill, which spent its time on earth serving one of the more incredibly olive plates in American history, which wasn’t so much an olive plate so as some olives pooled in their own oil, accompanied by high-quality bread. For this they charged something like six dollars; it was, among the small group I polled who remembered this plate, worth it.

But Brucie’s olive twist on the plate was hardly the norm. Most restaurants, it seems, have either taken the plate entirely away, or added a common sense solution: a price. Within the last five years, the bread basket has become increasingly rare, with no real replacement. According to a report from the start of this phenomenon, cost was a big factor. One baker interviewed by the Boston Globe in 2014 said, "A restaurant used to be able to get a roll for 10 cents. Now it can be 50 or 55 cents. Bread used to be cheap, but now it’s a serious cost.” Restaurants felt they were burning through money, with baskets and baskets of bread returning to the kitchen trash cans every night.

Many blamed the rise of the gluten-free diner, but of course the low-carb dieter is nothing new in American dining. One wonders, then, if it may be the dieter who disappeared more than the carbs. A diet, of course, is something you can break, and what better way to bend it than a night out on the town. A bread basket was still the exception to many people’s so-called diets, but no real match for the force behind the gluten-free shift: a lifestyle change. With the American people’s new willpower not to change their bodies in a few short weeks for a brief summer season but instead over a period of years, for forever, came a shift in what restaurants could provide the average customer without that average customer feeling put upon.

Still, some restaurants that uphold the principles of a gluten-free lifestyle give their beleaguered guests something special in the absence of wheat. Rocking Horse, a beloved Mexican eatery in the heart of Chelsea, welcomes every diner with a bowl of chips (gluten-free) and a bowl of salsa (also gluten-free, also dairy-free)—the complimentary chips and salsa duo is still commonly offered in Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants. Rocking Horse’s owner Roe Di Bona says the decision to serve up free snacks alongside $11 margaritas comes from the heart, despite the extra cost.

“I believe it establishes a bond between our guests and the restaurant. It is a gesture that tells them, ‘We really care about you and we appreciate you,’” she said. “As for the cost, between the labor and product, they are not inexpensive to produce, but there are ways to absorb the costs by combining them with other low-cost items on the menu. The bottom line is that they make our guests very happy, which makes the cost almost irrelevant!”

Other holdouts, like Scalino in Greenpoint, ignore the gluten issue altogether, continuing to serve up complimentary bread (and butter) no matter who sits down, likely because the Italian restaurant assumes you knew what you were getting into when you walked through the door. Likewise, longstanding favorites like Becco, a cozy Hell’s Kitchen spot catering to the local half of theater-goers, hardly lets you sit down before they present an actual box full of breads and crackers. And on the Upper East Side, diners at the almost comically old-school Lex are presented with a bread basket that’s refilled as seamlessly as their wine glasses, with little pretense of keeping track of either.

That these beloved bread and pasta spots assume you won’t have a problem with a little extra at the start seems to be the glue holding the baskets to the tables. In fact, as one diner who frequents the red sauce spots of New York put it, “I expect all Italian and French restaurants to give some sort of carb to start the meal. If not, I’ll ask for it.”

And it’s true: Italian and French spots are safer bets when it comes to getting no-strings-attached bread. "We welcome each customer as if they are walking into our home,” says Dave Anoia, the chef at the family-owned DiAnoia’s Eatery in Pittsburgh. “Although it may be an added cost to us as a restaurant, the authentic experience is more important, and we encourage guests to enjoy every bit of sauce and olive oil with it as they would at home."

Perhaps the real force behind the perseverance of the bread basket comes from the main force behind most restaurants’ decisions: taste.

“We decided to continue offering our flatbread simply because it pairs nicely with our cuisine,” said Paige Fuentes of Mermaid Inn, which begins each meal with complimentary flatbread and ends each meal with complimentary pudding. Both, this author can confirm, really do pair nicely with the cuisine.