The next big show at the Kimmel Center is going to be one of its most expensive tickets: dinner.
The performers? Celebrity Iron Chef Jose Garces and his team. The set? Volvér, a much-awaited jewel box dining room in the Kimmel Center. And not only will its tasting menus instantly become the city's priciest meal, with food alone fluctuating between $150 and $250, it will also become Philly's first restaurant to sell those seats online as a "ticketed experience," prepaid and nonrefundable. Tickets are set to go on sale March 12.
"Every other performing art at the Kimmel Center is a ticketed event," says Garces. "Locking in the revenue a month at a time helps us plan better for the kind of luxe experience we're providing."
For Garces, the chef behind Amada and Distrito who's opened 16 restaurants between both coasts and become a TV celebrity chef, his return to the local kitchen spotlight doesn't lack for drama. (Volver, in fact, is Spanish for "to return.")
The ticketing system, pioneered by Chicago restaurants Next and Alinea, and budding into a high-end restaurant trend, virtually eliminates the cost of no-shows, an industry plague. (Garces' restaurants suffered a 4-percent no-show rate last year.) It is also the latest affirmation that dining out has grown akin to theater with chefs as star performers - a concept that rankles some.
"This is the hospitality industry and going online to buy a ticket is not the hospitality industry - it's a sporting event," says Garces' friend and competitor, Marc Vetri, whose restaurant Vetri is a block east of Volvér.
But the first question, perhaps, is whether Philadelphians, typecast as a conservative audience, can even fill 40 seats a night sustainably at those prices? At an average of $175 plus an automatic 20-percent tip, tax and $80 to $120 for wine, that's at least $328 a person. (An earlier seating will serve the pretheater crowd an abbreviated eight-course menu for $75 to $120.)
Vetri, who serves a tasting menu at his namesake restaurant for $155, was previously the "Most Expensive Menu" titleholder. "I'm happy to relinquish the crown to him!" says Vetri. "But it's got to be worth it, that's all."
Stephen Starr serves an estimated 40,000 diners a week at the 22 restaurants he owns here. "The conventional wisdom is that it will be a challenge in Philadelphia," says Starr. "But my gut feeling is it could work if the food's exceptional. It's going to have to be spectacular, because that's rarefied air."
Volvér will not be nearly in league with New York's Masa or Per Se, which serve menus in excess of $400 and $295 respectively. But it sits just shy (on a more modest night) of the $225 cost of dinner at New York's Eleven Madison Park, and the tasting menus at Chicago's Alinea, ranging from $210 to $265.
"It's a dream place for me, a culmination of many years of toiling in the business," says Garces, whose tasting menus at Tinto and Amada in Atlantic City top out at $75. "I could have done this anywhere. But I chose to do this here in my hometown. I don't want to come off as cocky, but I just wanted to do something special here. And something nice costs money."
So, what culinary wonders does Garces plan to unveil? He's not divulging details of the food yet. But it will be produced in a high-tech, $400,000 shimmering kitchen with a custom-designed Montague island cook top ($150,000) and gastro-toys ranging from a "rotary evaporator" (to distill vodka and rosemary into a test tube essence) and a "sonic emulsifier" to transform a carrot into "pure flavor."
To land a seat in Volvér's dining room guests will have to purchase tickets online up to two months in advance, though the exact opening date is still undecided. The price for dinner will also fluctuate, Garces says, hovering around $175 but spiking on special occasions (like New Year's Eve) or when special ingredients (like live Anguillas eels from Maine) are available.
In Chicago, where former derivatives trader Nick Kokonas launched the ticketing system for his restaurants Next, Alinea and Aviary, prices for seats vary like plane and hotel reservations with the desirability of the hour and day. Less popular times (9 p.m. Wednesday) are sold $35 cheaper than the same meal on Friday night. Next, which runs three themed menus a year, has taken the theater analogy to another level by selling season tickets.
Kokonas has received inquiries from dozens of other high-end restaurateurs across the country (including Garces, though Volvér will use a different service.)
Vetri is skeptical of online ticketing, calling it a "slippery slope" away from the human interaction that is at the core of the hospitality business: "I want more interaction."
At Vetri, a credit card is required to book a reservation and customers receive a confirmation call 48 hours prior. If customers fail to show - barring weather or other circumstances - the credit card is charged and proceeds are donated to Vetri's foundation.
The growth of a prepaid ticketing system marks a subtle cultural change.
"There's definitely a sense (with online tickets) that we've lost a bit of that gentlemen's handshake agreement - but reservations are broken all the time," says Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel.
Garces was also inspired by the notion a pre-payed online ticket might also lessen the unpleasant sticker shock of a traditional post-meal bill, likening it to taking an Uber car service: "The thought of going to a luxe restaurant of this caliber and not having to deal with a transaction at the end ... there's value in that."
And the lucky guests sitting at the kitchen counter that anchors Volvér's intimate 40-seat dining room will be so close to the Iron Chef, he said, "I could sweat on them."
For a devoted Garces fans like attorney Siobhan Havener, 36, the prospect of seeing the chef at such close-range is enticing.
"If it's going to be the glory of Jose Garces at his best, I want to go," she said. "I'd spend the $500 for the two of us, plus the wine pairing and whatever else is going on."
Of course, while a Garces sighting is likely, it's no guarantee. The initial plan was for Volvér to only be open when Garces was able to be in the restaurant. But with at least $3 million already invested by a partnership of Kimmel Center and state funds (Garces would not divulge his company's contribution), financial realities dictated the restaurant be open five nights a week. Volvér is an independent business, but the Kimmel Center will receive a commission on all food and beverage sales, said Kimmel Center communications director Rashidah Perry-Jones.
"I'm on three to four nights a week," Garces said. "But this is going to be my home base. And I've got a great team led by Natalie Moronski, who's been with me for eight years and helped open Amada."
The reality, of course, is that most head chefs oversee their kitchen staff and don't cook every plate, more like a conductor leading the orchestra than like a musician playing all the violins himself.
"But if he wasn't there, that would definitely be disappointing," said Havener. "It's one of the reasons you can command that price - the allure of Jose being in front of you and watching him cook your food."
Even so, there is no discount for nights Garces is not at the stove. And with those precious prepaid tickets in hand and Volvér's kitchen and service cast ready to perform, the show must go on.