Cody Taylor was dining in an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant when inspiration struck. “The idea for an unlimited prix fixe menu hit me,” he remembers, and in the next breath he asked himself: “Is this something we could pull off?” Taylor, owner of Café Josie, unveiled “The Experience,” an unlimited prix fixe menu, three weeks later.
Café Josie, a fine-dining restaurant in Austin, Texas, is celebrating its 19th anniversary this year, and, while the menu is very upscale, it aims for a relaxing ambiance. As Taylor brainstormed ways to attract new guests, he realized he had to think of ways to reinvent the dining experience. “A lot of the motivation to do this menu was because we’re in one of the hottest restaurant cities in the country but we’re not a new restaurant,” Taylor explains. “The Experience” is a $40 per person, unlimited prix fixe menu featuring bestsellers as well as new dishes created by Executive Chef Todd Havers. While the all-you-can-eat concept is usually relegated to casual restaurants that are not chef-driven, Taylor and Chef Havers are using the format to get diners to try more of their signature dishes. For Taylor, it represents the full Café Josie experience. “Guests get to taste the entire menu, and we’ve been trying to [make that happen] for years,” he says.
In some ways an all-you-can-eat menu makes sense. The popularity of small plates has risen because diners want to experience a variety of flavors. Café Josie’s unlimited prix fixe menu is composed of appetizer-sized dishes that appeal to many types of diners. Southern-inspired favorites like Fried Chicken with Maple Butter and Cornmeal-Crusted Catfish with Pickled Poblanos join vegetarian options like Fried Brussels Sprouts and Pecan Pimiento Cheese.
Diners and chefs also want to feel good about the dishes being served. Local, organic, and seasonal have become mantras for restaurants, and these ingredients come at a premium cost to operators. To make sure Café Josie doesn’t sacrifice its commitment to locally sourced product and to keep margins in the black, Taylor and Chef Havers established ground rules for The Experience, clearly outlined on the menu’s front page: No to-go boxes, everyone at a table must participate in the menu, and diners who over-order are charged a fee. Dishes that use higher-cost ingredients are marked with an asterisk, meaning they can only be ordered once. These rules help Taylor ensure the menu makes financial sense for the restaurant. “I’m able to keep my food costs low and maintain a low overhead,” he explains, adding that feedback has been “better than expected.”
Café Josie plans to offer the menu for the foreseeable future. “It’s such a unique idea and people have had so much fun with it,” Taylor says. “One guest said it was the most fun dining experience she’s had in years."