Why is Lobster Cheaper in Sushi Restaurants?

So I was at a sushi joint last night and ordered the “Lobster Bake” — essentially, a baked lobster tail, served on top of a very tasty chili aioli sauce. It was $15.

Upon paying the bill, I remembered that the last few times I’d ordered lobster at a Japanese restaurant, it had always been under $20, and the last few times I’d ordered it at a steak house, it was more like $60-$90.

What accounts for the difference in lobster pricing at steakhouses and Japanese restaurants? Does anyone know? I’ve searched around and haven’t found anything. Although I love lobster, I’ve always considered the quality differences of it to be mainly in the preparation. Is it the case that steakhouses are really buying expensive lobsters and Japanese places are buying cheap ones, or are they just marking them up differently because lobsters are not a main attraction in Asian cuisine?

19 comments on “Why is Lobster Cheaper in Sushi Restaurants?”. Leave your own?
  1. Vladimir says:

    It may have to do with the fact that Steakhouses are just expensive to begin with.

  2. Jemaleddin says:

    If you’re just getting tails, they may be buying them frozen, which is pretty cheap. Whole live lobster obviously costs more to transport and maintain.

    The general rule for restaurant pricing is that a dish should cost 3 times its ingredients to cover staff, overhead and profits. So a frozen tail is probably about $5, and a whole lobster is about $20+ which is what you’d pay at a grocery store for a good sized lobster.

  3. Nathan says:

    There is no difference at all from the Japanese and the Steakhouse lobsters!

    Trust me, I used to work at an expensive Seafood/Steakhouse place on the East coast of Canada for a few years. The lobster sellers would come around every 1-2 days, and then next their next stop was a take-out seafood place. We sold our lobster dinner for $39.95 and the take-out place sold it for $12.95. Same lobster, same freshness, same preparation but we were more than 3x more expensive… and we always had a full house :-)

    Lobsters are actually quite cheap, I regard them as the ‘rats of the ocean’ :-)

  4. Benjy says:

    I’d tend to think it’s a combination of factors:
    1. The overpricing that’s common for high end steakhouses/seafood places. Their typical customers are either on expense accounts or wealthy enough that a few bucks doesn’t matter to them. And in some ways, a higher price reinforces the idea that this is a great meal. Why else could they charge so much?

    2. Pricing of lobsers climbs exponentially depending on size. Two 1-lb. lobsters are a lot cheaper than one 2-lb. lobster — kind of like diamond carats. High end places tend to serve giant lobsters, just like they oversize their cuts of beef.

    3. The fresh/live vs. frozen factor. I’ve never had lobster at an asian restaurant, but when I’ve had crab legs (in the shell real crab, not the fake krab) it’s often had that sort of frozen seafood taste to it. They could be buying the lobsters frozen, or they could even be buying them live and then freezing them. I’d imagine part of of the price paid at a high end place is the visible tank get-up (it’s basically a salt water aquarium and they’re not cheap to maintain) and the “breakage” of those which die before being served. A place known for lobster can’t run out without disappointing patrons, so they over order and add a few bucks to the price of those they sell to cover those that go bad. If a japanese place was out? You’d order something different.

  5. Dave says:

    There isn’t a lobster on the planet worth $90. Please tell me that price is an exaggeration.

  6. Jim Ray says:

    It all comes down to language. There’s no phonetic difference between ‘r’ and ‘l’ in spoken Japanse and the word ‘lobster’ has both. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

  7. Jason says:

    Great question. “Rats of the ocean” – LOL.

  8. ian says:

    On my next visit to Morton’s I am going to demand “Ocean Rat”.

  9. Snow says:

    off-topic: best lobster i ever had was in St. st. Maarten….the place to go fishing in the day, and a restaurant at night.

    20 bucks. cut in half and put on the grill right from the ocean.

    proof that god is not a lobster.

  10. There are a few factors that are probably in play here:

    If the tails are frozen, not fresh, that’s a major difference. Fresh lobster usually come via air daily, while frozen come via truck/mail. Since you’re on the west coast, Maine lobster would be especially expensive fresh.

    Secondly, it might not have been Maine lobster. Maine lobster tail is the most expensive variety, and consequently most lobster tail comes from “rock lobster” rather than from clawed Maine lobster. Actually, there isn’t much meat in Maine lobster tail anyway, making it even more expensive per ounce.

    There are two major classes of rock lobster: warm water and cold water. Cold water lobster is much easier to cook and much more consistent, and usually comes from Australia or New Zealand, making it expensive (when fresh), or moderate (frozen). Warm water rock lobster comes from the Caribbean and is less consistent (maybe one in six or seven are bad), and those factors make it moderately-priced (when fresh) or less expensive (when frozen).

    Of course, season affects prices. If they bought in the fall, and have frozen since, then prices are much lower than buying in the winter.

    So, you may have had warm water frozen rock lobster tail purchased in September. Buy them in bulk, they might be $3 or $4 apiece.

  11. oh, re: ocean rat … lobster used to be considered foul, and was one of the main dishes fed to New England slaves during the colonial period. Folks used lobster as fertilizer as well.

    It wasn’t until foreign demand for lobster brought riches to the lobstering industry that it became a chic dish.

  12. Mike D. says:

    Aha! Great explanations.

    Jemaleddin: Yep, I bet the frozenness has a lot to do with things. Most steakhouses probably pride themselves in serving the freshest lobster they can, while frozen ones may be just fine at sushi places. I, for one, have a hard time telling the difference, from a taste perspective.

    Nathan: Well, you may also be right, I suppose. I think next time I see cheap lobster, I’m going to ask.

    Benjy: Interesting about the size thing as well. The sushi restaurant lobsters do seem a bit small.

    Dave: Nope, not exaggerating. I’ve seen them for $90 around here. I never actually *order* them when they are that price, but I’ve seen it. The whole “market price” thing seems to insinuate that there is a huge difference in the actual cost of the lobster on a day to day basis. That also seems weird to me. If the swing was less than $10, you’d think the restaurant would just keep their price steady.

    M. Jackson: Great lobster background. Thanks!

  13. Anonymous says:

    It’s because it’s not a real lobster, but more like “fish cake” (fish sausage) with artificial lobster flavor.

  14. Hello, about lobsters yes I have my story from real life. About 15 years ago in Praia de Rocha, southwest Portugal, we visited the place just as tourists, we put our black suits ( we always had them with us even if shorts was the daily clothes ) on and went as the locals do out to eat at a nice restaurant. Even as tourists we did this in black suits and ties just to be like locals. After some other events we where taken to our table. At the left hand side there was this huge aquarium with many lobsters, live of course. The chef asked us which we wanted and since the glass was thicker than I could imagine I said we have that red and that blue ( they where very large outside when served at the table ). The service was absolutely excellent all evening we had actually too much of lobster and the dessert was on the house. Somehow I anticipated what was coming. And then came the bill which was 250 USD ( oops! ), well it was also including one bottle of white wine…. It was an evening that I will never forget…but the lobster was just excellent! So fine lobsters are very very expensive, but gooooood.
    reg. triuno

  15. Justin D says:

    All good lobster info. I was a chef at a steakhouse in college and, due to tourists quizzing me, I know an exorbitant amount of lobster trivia.

    A couple fun facts:

    • Lobsters don’t have a central nervous system like other animals. They don’t feel any pain when steamed. Additionally, once they get to a certain temp, they go into a coma so by the time the steam actually kills them, they’re comatose and not awake to not feel it.

    • The ‘scream’ you hear when steaming lobsters is pressure releasing from the shell, the (comatose) lobster makes no noise

    What I wonder about is why a glass of Scotch in a Chinese restaurant (the few that serve liquor) costs $3 just like the wine where at a steakhouse it costs $15. It’s the EXACT same bottle. Markup be damned!

  16. Jack says:

    Tangential question: What sushi joint was this? :D

  17. Mike D. says:

    Jack: It was Umi on 1st in Belltown.

  18. Steve says:

    I’ve had lobster many times and this weekend I was shocked when I got my bill. I went to a nice steakhouse, Del Frisco’s, and my girlfriend ordered the lobster tail (18 oz)…little over a pound. I have a job where I eat at nice places 3 to 4 times a week with clients. The cost of this 18 oz lobster tail…$110.00….yes One hundred and ten dollars! I go there all the time, but never ordered the lobster. I can tell you this will be the last time I order the lobster at Del Frisco’s. Since I go there all the time, I did talk with the manager and he said the bill was correct and they charge $6 an oz. I’ll just stick to going there and having my vodka tonics at the bar and laughing at people ordering the lobster like I did this past weekend. Rule of thumb is ask for the cost before ordering…don’t think you know the cost just because you have ordered it many times. I did go back the next night for drinks and I didn’t get charged for any. So my friends behind the bar took care of me.

  19. Mia says:

    If you’ve ever visitied an Asian Supermarket, you’d be kickign yourself for shoppign anywhere else… Live lobsters, (The 2-2.5lb variety) for $12-13. Bit of a difference to Whole Foods $21.00- when they did sell them.

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