If only! Perhaps with this sad economy it will be more true, but I have been gravely disappointed by a lot of expensive places plating food that looks cute but is made no better -- and sometimes worse -- than places a small fraction the price. And all too often, the obsequious idiots who write reviews bow low before the stacked food.
Yes, that's where I got the monkey remark.
I think we're all on the same page, really.
I was thinking about this thread on a very long and tedious train ride today. I put it this way, in my head:
Let's suppose I count $10/hour for my time. I am passably skilled, as home cooks go, but not a hotshot by any means. I have no restaurant skills, by which I mean all the many factors that you mention, having to do with how things are done in a restaurant as opposed to at home. So if I make a dish in 1 hour, and the ingredients cost me $10, we have to count the plate at $20. If it's food for two, each plate is $10. With me?
Now a restaurant has a lot more staff, overhead, and whatnot, but on the other hand is in a position to acquire ingredients less expensively and use them more efficiently. Carrots, to take a humble example, can be blocked and cut in a proper dice, brunoise, julienne, or whatever is appropriate to the dish, and the large amount of trimmed material can be used elsewhere -- in stock, for example, or other sauce bases, or whatever.
The home cook generally must purchase ingredients at a considerable markup, and trim is very often waste; certainly in a comparison thing like this it must be counted so, even if you freeze it and use it in stock later.
If we count $10/hour for the home cook's labor, which I think factors in the convenience cost and such, we have to add quite a number of prices to the actual cost of the home dish. 100% of the time for shopping, planning, prep, cooking, and washing-up. So if you say a dish takes you an hour, that means you went from "hey, I think I'll make..." to a finished dish with all dishes in the washer in one hour flat. That doesn't happen often, in my home experience. I'd say add 1 hour at least to the actual work time of any dish or meal, and with something more elaborate or unfamiliar to the cook, at least 2 hours.
So let's say I decide I'll make some fancy thing I found in The French Laundry. How much time? Count 2 hours for exterior labor, because the planning was done for you (by the cookbook) but you had a lot of pots and time in the store and whatnot. Count 3-4 hours of actual labor making the dish, minimum (see Carol Blymire's brilliant "French Laundry At Home" blog for a demonstration); more likely, add 5-6 hours. Call it 4 for current purposes.
Now ingredient cost will not be slight here: a whole bottle of wine for marinade, high-quality steaks, sweetbreads, who knows what. Call it $50 total, for enough to serve two people.
2 hours (buying, washing, getting organized): $20
4 hours (prep, cooking): $40
TOTAL: $110, serving 2 people = $55/plate
Now if I eat the same dish at the same price in a restaurant, I should get equal quality.
If I eat the same dish at The French Laundry, I'll pay something like this, give or take. Will it be of equal quality to my own version? You betcha -- I haven't eaten there yet, but many people I trust assure me that it deserves its rep. In point of fact, it's going to be a heck of a lot better than what I can do. So a $55 entree at that place is a bargain.
In point of fact, if you do the math this way, honestly, a good restaurant should always be a bargain. They ought to be able to produce better food than I can in terms of REAL cost -- i.e. including labor, not just ingredients. Any slob can put together a better meal at a straight-up ingredient cost, given a little functional technique, but that's a totally inaccurate measure.
What's irritating, however, is that there are lots of places in which by my best, fairest estimate, I am not getting what I pay for. I honestly could produce the same dish better for the same real cost.
Getting back to the original post, this is one of the things that happens when you learn how to cook at least passably at home. You begin to realize when you're eating overpriced mediocrity, because you actually do know what the food should be like. For example, if I eat a teeny slice of pate which is honestly a great deal worse than the pate I make, I am paying too much almost no matter what: pate isn't all that expensive to make, and you get a whacking great block for your trouble. A good restaurant should be more or less coining money with pate, and if they can't do it well, there is something amiss with the garde-manger.
On the whole, I will say that the restaurants that most stun me (as I have mentioned in other threads) are high-end kaiseki restaurants. The ingredient cost is extremely high, the number of dishes is huge, and the quality is stunning. Yet they accomplish all this at fair (if hardly cheap!) prices, and do it with the head chef serving and chatting with the customers full-time. What's more, the liquor markup is trivial, so they're not making extra money in the usual way for a lot of high-end Western restaurants. The fact that they not only stay in business but make good money is the purest demonstration of skill and talent I know of in the food trade.