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In Tough Times, Restaurants Downsize Lobsters

Frank Bruni,|The New York Times
Wednesday, 3 Sep 2008 | 4:11 AM ET

The 7:30 dinner reservation that you’re always trying and failing to get will become easier pickings this fall, but it may also become a con of a sort. Restaurateurs, like airlines, are overbooking. They can’t afford to lose revenue to no-shows, not in an economy like this.

You’ll notice more special deals, more value meals: happy-hour snacks for under $4; late-night

nibbles for less; Sunday promotions; lunchtime bargains. You’ll see hanger steaks where strip steaks were once ascendant, dwarf lobsters where steroidal crustaceans once reigned.

Luxury items will be scarcer, low-ticket options more ubiquitous. You’ll notice more comfort food and more straightforward food, as many restaurateurs defer to what diners are guaranteed to order, rather than what chefs are flattered to concoct.

And you’ll hear the accents and see the stamp of foreigners, who are claiming an ever greater percentage of restaurant seats, their currencies more valuable than ours. “On Tuesday a year ago the dining room would be full around 7,” said Robert Bohr, the wine director at the Greenwich Village restaurant Cru. “Now the dining room is full at 8:30 or 9.”

That’s when Europeans prefer to dine, and up to 40 percent of Cru’s diners on a given night are foreigners, he said. In 2004, when Cru opened, as few as 15 percent were. “The whole dining atmosphere has changed,” Mr. Bohr said.

In light of that, the restaurant the Modern, in Midtown, began printing prices on its wine list in Euros as well as in dollars this year so tourists did not have to do their own arithmetic to appreciate how good they have it.

As the New York restaurant world enters a characteristically busy fall season, what’s most striking aren’t the flashy openings — in New York there’s always plenty of flash and there remains a good deal of cash — but the strategic adjustments being made by restaurants that aren’t taking their success, or for that matter their survival, for granted.

Make no mistake: Per Se will still be Per Se. Babbo and Balthazar will remain mobbed. And even most of the less vaunted and less wildly popular restaurants out there should muddle along fine for now. Restaurateurs in New York say that they haven’t been hit nearly as hard as their peers in other cities.

Moreover, an economic slowdown and a weak dollar have not prevented prominent restaurateurs like Drew Nieporent and prominent chefs like David Bouley from forging ahead with ambitious projects, some hatched before times got tougher. But in this season’s crop of new restaurants, as in the changes made by old ones, it’s clear that it’s no longer business as usual.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw some places charging you if you went beyond a certain number of bread courses,” said Julie Taras Wallach, an owner of the Lower East Side restaurant Little Giant, referring acerbically to diners who camp out at tables, trying to get as much for as little as possible.

Lump Crab Meat, Not Jumbo

She said she is more conscious than ever of the need to turn tables. Fuel prices have gone up. Food prices have gone up. But since diners are feeling financially strapped, too, the restaurants can’t pass on those increased costs simply by raising menu prices. So they’re deploying other strategies.

“Instead of using morel mushrooms I’ll use shiitake,” said Ralf Kuettel, the chef and owner of Trestle on Tenth, in Chelsea. Most of Trestle on Tenth’s entrees are under $25. To keep prices down, Mr. Kuettel is improvising. “For example,” he said, “the chilled tomato soup with crab meat: I’m not getting jumbo lump crab meat. I’m getting lump crab meat.” It’s half the cost, he said, so he doesn’t have to raise what he charges for the appetizer at dinner — it’s $9.25.

He said that the average check per diner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights has declined to $45 from about $55 a year ago. Diners are forgoing bottled water and monitoring the amount, and expense, of the wine they drink.

Other restaurants are trying harder than ever to cast themselves as inexpensive, to put anxious diners at ease. That’s partly what all those menus that divide appetizers into categories — cured meats here, composed dishes there, finger foods over there — are about.

A profusion of items with modest digits attached to them lures diners into the menu, reassuring them that they can navigate it without going broke.

In July the elegant Italian restaurant L’Impero became the slightly less elegant Italian restaurant Convivio — note the name change, which emphasizes casual warmth over imperial grandiosity — and unveiled a menu with a category for snacks from $4 to $6 like rice balls and marinated olives. On top of which, Convivio’s four-course prix fixe, at $59, is $5 less than L’Impero’s was.

While some diners continue to splurge, others are no longer able to, or newly wary. “We used to run a three- to five-pound lobster special,” said Peter Glazier, the principal owner of the Strip House and Michael Jordan’s The Steak House N.Y.C. He was referring to both of those restaurants, where the lobsters were $29 a pound. They still are.

But about a month ago, he said, “we went to a two- to three-pound lobster special” because fewer diners wanted to pay $116 for a lobster, which was what a four-pound one cost.

Strip House is a small chain with establishments in several cities other than New York, and in those cities it recently instituted, for the first time, a bar menu with a hamburger, a steak sandwich, a shrimp cocktail and other less expensive items. He said that doing it in New York isn’t out of the question.

Bar menus around the city are growing longer as more diners move away from properly set tables and conventional meals with higher checks. Some chefs are turning their attention toward more casual restaurants with heartier, more filling fare.

Early this year Michael Psilakis followed up his haute Greek restaurant Anthos, in Midtown, with the less expensive Italian restaurant Mia Dona on the East Side. This fall, on the Upper West Side, he and his business partner, the restaurateur Donatella Arpaia, are expected to open a relocated and much larger version of Kefi, a casual Greek restaurant whose entrees average $15.

Mia Dona does delivery, and so will Kefi, because it wrings more revenue from the kitchens’ efforts. “Volume cures a lot,” Ms. Arpaia said. “You’ve got to take everything you can.” Many restaurants are trying to sate diners and give them a sense of plenty for the lowest price possible.

“You have to be smart as a restaurateur and a chef and say, what’s the most value I can put on this plate so it looks like a lot of food and still appears to be a value and doesn’t anger anyone?” Ms. Taras Wallach of Little Giant said. “I serve a lot of grits,” she added.

No Time-Wasters, Please

And many restaurants are trying harder than ever not to let any seats go to waste. Ms. Arpaia said that at Mia Dona she is accepting more reservations between 7 and 9 p.m. rather than steering diners toward early and late times that they might reject.

Even if this means lengthening diners’ waits for reserved tables, she, like other restaurateurs, wants to make sure that no-shows don’t cost the restaurant money. “I’d rather have people wait at the bar and buy them a free drink than not get them in the door,” she said, adding that she knows of other restaurants acting in a similar, extra-cautious fashion.

Restaurant blogs are atwitter with more reports of places trying to bully diners into keeping their commitments to reservations by asking for credit card numbers for tables for five or more. The credit card number gives the restaurant the option — seldom exercised — of charging a no-show fee.

The restaurant Allen & Delancey, on the Lower East Side, asks for a credit card number even when someone makes a reservation for four. The policy is a psychological tactic, said a manager there, used to keep diners to their promises.

And restaurants are being more aggressive about promotions that attract diners on days and at hours when the restaurants aren’t typically full. Starting Monday, Hundred Acres, in SoHo, will offer a happy-hour special, from 5 to 7 p.m., of $2 organic corn dogs and $3 ice cream floats at the bar.

Several months ago, Eighty One, on the Upper West Side, began offering a prix fixe of $42 for any two courses ordered from 5:15 to 6:15 p.m. Monday through Saturday and all night Sunday.

The restaurant Vento, in the meatpacking district, recently unveiled a Sunday night special of a pizza or a pasta and a glass of wine or beer for $12.95. “When there’s an economic downturn, everybody gets more creative with everything they do,” said Donna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for B. R. Guest Restaurants, which owns Vento.

At the company’s seafood restaurants in Manhattan, including Atlantic Grill and Blue Water Grill, individual oysters, clams and shrimp are $1.25 apiece at the bar from 10 p.m. on. Earlier in the evening those items are $2.25 or more.

Eleven Madison Park, in the Flatiron district, has a new $38 prix fixe lunch, and its servers, like those at other restaurants in Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, are taking greater pains to spotlight affordable wines within diners’ narrowly circumscribed comfort zones.

“All of our wine directors are starting to play this game more aggressively,” said Paul Bolles-Beaven, one of Mr. Meyer’s business partners. “People are spending less on wine right now, and they’re not spending to impress.”

Unless, that is, they’re European. “You should see, when they come in the door, the shopping bags they hand off to the coat check,” said Graceanne Jordan, the general manager at the Modern, which is part of the Union Square group and is near the shopping corridors of Madison and Fifth Avenues. “I mean, they’re just spending. It’s Monopoly money to them.”

And they’ve helped protect some of Manhattan’s most upscale restaurants from economic repercussions, especially because they’re more likely, managers said, to order extensive tasting menus and multiple bottles of wine. But their prominence in dining rooms could create problems for restaurateurs and foster new policies that would affect all diners. Some Europeans tip less than 15 to 20 percent of the bill.

One restaurateur, who asked not to be identified for fear of offending his staff or clients, said that servers in his employ have begun to agitate for mandatory tips. Another restaurateur, Joseph Bastianich, whose restaurants include Del Posto and Esca, said, “It’s a tricky thing.” He added that if the problem worsened, “you’d have to do something.” Meanwhile he and others in the restaurant business are keeping an especially careful watch for inspectors for the Michelin Guide, trusted by Europeans and more important to New York restaurants now than when it started rating restaurants here three years ago.

They’re sweet-talking concierges, since so many diners are coming from hotels. If you really want to be sure of that 7:30 p.m. table, ask for it with a French, Spanish or Italian accent. It will brand you as a potentially bigger spender, the kind helping New York’s restaurants outlast a weak dollar and a wobbly Dow.

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