It doesn't take a genius to figure out that many Americans are trading down on their already less-frequent dining out occasions. Many upscale owners and chefs are having an identity crisis trying to figure out how to stay relevant to an ever-evolving audience.
Today's increasingly relaxed dining scene is chock full of contrasts: Michelin-star chefs plying the streets of Manattan in Kogi-style trucks, Iron Chefs packing 'em in at burger joints, neighborhood dives bankrolled by the same folks behind prestigious names. Some chefs have gutted their now-too-stuffy flagship restaurant and morphed it into a more approachable offshoot. Still others, sticking to their guns, have added cheaper, simpler menus to their bars to bring in status- but budget-conscious patrons. Clearly, there is more than one path.
A New, More Relaxed, You
These days, a popular strategy is to take advantage of an expiring lease to go in a new direction and launch something very different.
A case in point is Jonathan Eismann, who built his reputation on the highly regarded Pacific Time, a pan-Asian place that helped jump start Miami Beach's restaurant scene when it opened in the mid-1990s. Last year, he decided to leave the $500,000 rent bill behind and moved over to the city's up-and-coming Design District. He used the opportunity to shed the white tablecloth style and halve the average check with a menu of a couple dozen small plates. Around the corner, he also started Pizza Volante, a 30-seat Roman-style pizzeria and mozzarella bar. He did so originally, he says, because it was something he had wanted to do for years and the timing was right. But he was pleasantly surprised with the early results.
“This store has the potential to be cash flow positive quite easily. That in itself is a revelation,” he says. “I think due to (lower) operating costs, product, labor, energy and hard costs that this small box model can be much more profitable than a larger, more difficult operation,” he adds. “On top of that, these little box concepts are much easier to run.” Last month he opened a second small box concept, a seafood place called Fin, near Pizza Volante; he also has plans for an additional Pizza Volante later this year.
Paul Kahan, the brains behind Chicago's Blackbird, Avec and Publican, recently partnered in a new venture, Big Star, that pushes the envelope for him. Located in what once served as a mechanic's garage, Big Star Taqueria and Bar is a down-and-dirty neighborhood joint with a jukebox, a deep tequila list and $2 tacos. Big Star recently joined a growing list of wildly popular dives in the Windy City; Rick Bayless, another prominent chef, can't keep up with demand at Xoco, and Kuma's Corner, where the specialties include big burgers and bourbon on tap, attracts guests willing to stand out in the Chicago cold for 90 minutes or longer.
Big Star took over a space occupied by a popular neighborhood haunt, and the partners made sure to avoid alienating the clients. “We were careful to keep it very cheap, very divey, but it's a bar with great food,” Kahan says. The response has been palpable.
“It's completely mobbed every night,” Kahan says. “People love the food, and it's trouble-free and easy.” Chef de cuisine Justin Large, who has worked for Kahan's group for eight years, heads up the kitchen, which is staffed by less-skilled cooks who put together the simple tacos and other Mexican street fare, served on plastic plates. The interior consists of a bar and five booths, and there is a takeout window. Volume is huge: Some nights Big Star sells 1,000 tacos. Big Star also sells a ton of adult beverages: Kahan reckons the alcohol-to-food ratio nears a sweet 80:20.
Scott Carsberg, chef/owner of the four-star Lampreia in Seattle, also faced a real estate crossroads recently. Carsberg, who had been looking forward to moving Lampreia into a grand new space in a mixed-use development, backed out of the deal when a soft real estate market severely limited willing and able condo buyers. He closed the 18-year-old restaurant, as planned, in January, but decided to wait out the economy before resurrecting it in a new location. His backup plan: Bistao, a Venetian-inspired cicchetti bar that opened a month later in Belltown, a neighborhood popular for diners. With no reservations, counter seating, a handful of small tables and an appetizer/intermezzo-laden menu, the new spot is a big departure from Lampreia. The focus is on comfort foods and cocktails with lower prices ($9-$15 for entrees, small bites for $2, versus Lampreia's $28-$35 plates).
“It's an opportunity for us to have some fun and make it a little more casual,” he says. It's also self-financed, because Carsberg has seen that banks aren't willing to part with their money these days. Between the simplicity of the project, and the lack of financial red tape, “it was a chance for us to get something online quickly,” Carsberg explains. When the economy regains its footing, expect Lampreia to return; meanwhile, this Beard Award winner will be plating cicchettis to keep the cash flowing.
Robert Del Grande helped put Southwestern cuisine on the map almost 30 years ago with Houston's Café Annie, but last year he dimmed the lights and relocated to a new space a few blocks away, which he divided into three concepts under the RDG+Bar Annie umbrella. The ground floor contains the 30-seat Blvd. Lounge (a meeting place for light meals, appetizers, drinks and wines), while the second floor houses Bar Annie (80 seats, burgers, fun food, salads, fried shrimp, nachos) and the RDG Grill Room (80 seats, steaks and other familiar regional fare made less formal).
“As I've gotten older I'm discovering I like things simpler,” Del Grande says. “In this era I wanted to make the restaurant more about the conviviality of dinner than the food itself,” the chef/owner told the Houston Chronicle.
Michael Symon, an Iron Chef most known for Cleveland's high-ticket Lola restaurant, is doing gangbusters business with two new more cost-conscious casual concepts, Bar Symon (deli sandwiches, brats, mac & cheese, fried chicken, snack foods) and B Spot (burgers, brats and craft beers).
Act Like a Chameleon
Sometimes just dropping prices and introducing new menus aren't enough to erase the perception that a restaurant is meant for more than special occasions. That's what the owner of Savoy restaurant in Asheville, NC, found when he experimented with lower prices and a small-plates menu: “People just stopped coming,” owner Eric Scheffer told the local media. “It was like someone turned the faucet off.” So he closed the restaurant for two weeks and reopened it as Vinnie's Neighborhood Italian, with a family-friendly atmosphere and entrees averaging $15.
In San Diego, Laurel Restaurant went a step further, jettisoning the red chandelier, crystal candleholders and other elements of the French interior and formal vibe. Owner Tracy Borkum decided to make the switch when she observed bookings at the restaurant were falling off, while the bar — which featured a more affordable, lighter menu — was holding its own. She tried dropping menu prices, but it wasn't enough of a change. So she shuttered Laurel and spent $300,000 reconfiguring it into Cucina Urbana, a casual Italian place that debuted last summer.
“I wanted to create something completely different than Laurel: a warm, inviting neighborhood restaurant that offered customers good value and great comfort food,” Borkum says. Customers quickly warmed up to the eclectic, rustic-chic design and the new casual menu.
Up Your User-Friendly Score
Even if the economy hasn't trashed your bookings, it might be time to make yourself more welcoming. Union Square Hospitality Group's Tabla and Bread Bar, which have shared a space for the last decade, recently melded into a single concept with a restructured menu. Guests can try several smaller plates family style, opt for tasting menus for the entire table or order a more traditional multicourse meal.
“Tabla's new menu offers the flexibility to dine the way you want to — experiencing as many or as few dishes as our guests would like — and spending as much or as little time and money as fits the occasion,” explains Danny Meyer, USHG's c.e.o. “This is increasingly the way we've come to enjoy dining out with our family and friends.”
If prices are a sticking point, promos promising a clear departure from the norm might be a way to attract interest. Craft in New York City hosts Damon: Frugal Fridays featuring market-driven menus of items costing $10 or less.
Even Joël Robuchon, whose L'Atelier restaurant at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is a high-roller's heaven, has caved in slightly to the downturn with L'Unique, a pre-theater express menu that packages an appetizer, main course and dessert, bento-box style, for $39. Available until 6:45 p.m., the new offering is presented in 15 minutes or less — a taste of luxury, without the leisure.
Donald Link, who carved out his reputation with a New Orleans big-ticket spot, Herbsaint, decided he wanted to let his hair down a bit with his most recent creation, Cochon Butcher. The latter is a butcher shop by day, what Link calls a “swine bar” at night. The lights are dimmed, and patrons sit at tables sipping cocktails and sharing plates of salumi and cheese sandwiches.
Daniel Boulud, one of the top French chefs working in the U.S. and known for his chic spots, last year opened a decidedly downscale concept, DBGB Kitchen and Bar, in New York's Bowery. There, he serves charcuterie and home-style dishes from his native Lyon: head cheese, pig's feet, rillette, tripe, ham hock and other delicacies, on small plates. Specialty burgers round out the menu.
Many operators are elevating bar fare to accommodate increased demand for that style of eating. At Craftsteak in New York, the bar area is called Halfsteak, and nothing on the menu tops $15. Ming Tsai's Blue Ginger near Boston has check averages of $55-$60, but a 50-seat lounge features street food and checks average about half that.
Finally, lest anyone think fine dining is dead, Danny Meyer is betting it will remains a viable niche. “Human nature doesn't change,” he told the Wall Street Journal recently. “When enough people are comfortable enough financially there is going to be human nature that wants to spend more money on better quality and to some degree status symbols as well.”
How to Rev Up Starter Orders
One way many diners have cut back on restaurant spending is by eliminating “extras” like appetizers and desserts. In a series of reports, “Left Side of the Menu,” the experts at Technomic suggest a variety of ways to encourage orders on these items. Those tips include:
Stretch the appeal of appetizers to different mealparts and dayparts. Consider, for example, bundling appetizers, salads and soups with entrees and sometimes even desserts as combo meals.
Bundle. Three out of five consumers polled said they would be encouraged to order soup if it were offered as an add-on to an entrée. And 52 percent said they would be more likely to order soup as part of a combo.
Menu unique flavors, offer specials and promotions, update frequently and put new spins on traditional choices.