March 10th, 2014
07:05 AM ET
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Kate Krader (@kkrader on Twitter) is Food & Wine's restaurant editor. When she tells us where to find our culinary heart's desire, we listen up.

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.

SAME Café - Denver, Colorado (@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.

JBJ Soul Kitchen - Red Bank, New Jersey (@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.

ComeUnity Café - Jackson, Tennessee (@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. 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.

Meanwhile, outside the U.S.

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).

Lentil as Anything - Various Locations in 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.

More from Food & Wine:
The World’s Best Tea Shops
Incredible Castle Hotels
Cincinnati in 10 Plates
Best New Steak Houses
America’s Greatest Diners

Lay your ham on me – Jon Bon Jovi opens a community kitchen
9-year-old girls save the world
Panera Bread bets you'll pay for that panini
Texas man funds lunch for school kids

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Filed under: Chain • Charity • Content Partner • Food and Wine • Hunger • Restaurants

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. macksmith345

    I am not sure but I think I spend half of my salary for the food and restaurant so I deal with a caterer so then I fix the rate of my food and order it. It's really good for working people.

    March 19, 2014 at 5:54 am |
  2. palintwit

    Really fresh roadkill is hard to find. That's why tea party patriots gladly pay thru the nose for it.

    March 11, 2014 at 2:03 pm |
  3. Melissa

    $750 for a cupcake and $5000 for a burger... that would be under the ripped off category. Talk about robbery.

    March 10, 2014 at 3:53 pm |
    • birdhouse9

      Not so much ripped-off.. as stupid. It's not like they didn't know the cost of the items before they ordered them. That's just stupidity beyond belief.

      March 10, 2014 at 8:01 pm |
    • sixthromeo

      We are not writing about being ripped off. We are writing about the exceeding shallow, those who are using money stolen from others; like profits from the stock market, real estate flipping and real estate agent extraordinary not earned profits; the number of people who are exceedingly shallow is extraordinary. Think bar orders, think night club vendors who aren't not paying the taxes or the licensing fees they should. Think small business owners who are withholding taxes from their employees but not remitting those taxes to the IRS; there are over 80 billion dollars owed in tax withholdings of small businesses that are ripping off their employees and the tax payer. You see advertisements by their lawyers on television all the time: "We only paid ten cents on every thousand dollars we owed to the IRS! We are so pleased." These are the people who pay that money for the "side dishes" that go with those prices; those side dishes being prostitutes, crystal meth, cocaine, heroin.

      March 11, 2014 at 1:50 am |
  4. betterdays

    These would be wonderful places to conduct some sociology experiments re: "donation inequality."

    March 10, 2014 at 2:58 pm |
  5. Joshua

    I wouldn't like the eat at a restaurant like this. I don't even like how tipping works. I tend to over-tip, to avoid feeling cheap, which then leads to me eating out less, to avoid the expense. This would exasperate the problem. I prefer to find specials, like half off burger night, and then feel like I got a good deal. Then I enjoy the experience more.

    March 10, 2014 at 2:39 pm |
    • jonusb

      That really makes zero sense. What's the problem with going to a restaurant where you're essentially not obligated to pay if you can't; especially if they're primary purpose is to serve the community. Oh yeah, we see those commercials for the franchise restaurants like Applebees and Friday's "serving the community"; which means they set tables for the local soccer club to have dinner. This is about opening your doors to those less fortunate. And if I'm going to over-tip, it certainly won't be for the hourly waiter who doesn't even bother writing down my order and isn't even the one to bring my food out; it will be the who works at the mom and pop place making barely minimum wage and who also serves the needy on occasion. I wish there were more of these places that I knew about on Long Island.

      March 10, 2014 at 3:15 pm |
  6. Green for Irish

    Panera is Italian for "soup from a can."

    March 10, 2014 at 8:10 am |
    • janco D. Monacino

      actually soup from a PLASTIC bag. though nopthin wrong with dat
      "volunteer" for meal? who's cookin the grub? wash those hands? yikes.

      March 10, 2014 at 8:00 pm |
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