It's Halloween, so permit me to scare you a little. Something's been happening on restaurant menus across the country lately: Prices have been going up. Way up.

Think of shrimp scampi, for example. (Permit me a brief aside first, though. Did you know that scampi is Italian for . essentially, shrimp? So shrimp scampi is an example of something from the Department of Redundancy Department -- shrimp shrimp.) The dish features the tasty creatures cooked in a lot of garlic, and you'll often find it priced around $15 to $25 on a typical menu. At Nikos Restaurant in Bridgeview, Illinios, for example, it's listed at $19.95. At the Lobster Dock in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, it's $15.95. Times are changing, though. As a recent New York Times article noted, "Metropolitan Grill in Seattle serves shrimp scampi for $39.95." Welcome to the world of the $40 entree.

You might think that it's just the high-end fancy places serving such dishes to the wealthy elite, but that's not so. You'll find that prices have risen considerably even in relatively casual eateries, where families dine.

Behind the curtain
Why has this happened? Well, a cynic might just assume that restaurants are hiking prices because they can, and because it fattens their bottom line. The restaurants explain that it's to cover rising overhead costs, plus the cost of premium ingredients, plus necessary costly designs and decorations.

It's worth noting that these increases have outpaced inflation. The New York Times cited Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill restaurant in New York as an example: "His entrees at Mesa Grill in New York top out at $34. (When it opened in 1991, the steepest entree was $19, or $28.30 when adjusted for inflation.)"

What to do
You might think that the best way to deal with $40 entrees, if you're outraged by them, is to simply skip them, opting for less expensive vittles. But be careful. As students of behavioral economics might explain, the $40 entree can thin your wallet even if you don't order it. That's because it sets a psychological stage. If you see a $40 entree, you'll likely not be as put off by the $34 entree next to it. But if the $34 entree were the most expensive item on the menu, you'd perhaps avoid it, thinking it was too pricey.

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