Restaurant recession specials


Restaurants are creating value-driven menus to woo diners and fill empty tables.

Restaurants are creating value-driven menus to woo diners and fill empty tables.

By now, we all know the recession has hit the restaurant business. The effects are especially hard in recession-ravaged cities like New York and Las Vegas, but eateries all over are struggling. The NPD Group, a market research firm, offered a grim forecast earlier this month, noting that restaurant business started dipping in the middle of 2008 and that 2009 will be a very tough year.

“Now we face a much tougher marketplace, much greater uncertainty, and a very tight hold on our pocketbooks,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst and author of the report, commenting on the current climate.  “Restaurant customers are being bombarded with great offers; they can carefully choose how and where to spend their food dollars. Much of the challenge for operators this year will be having a good understanding of what their customers want.”

Bad news if you own a restaurant, but good news for value-seeking customers.

My mate and I are typical of a lot of people these days. We’re eating in most nights and eating out a lot less than we used to. When we do venture out, it’s on a pretty modest scale–lunch from Tito’s Tacos (the best taco stand in LA, really), for example. And when we dine higher up on the restaurant food chain, we’re pretty demanding. We expect great food, excellent value, and cheerful service. We’re also less willing to cut restaurants much slack if they stumble on any of those factors.

That said, I’ve really enjoyed my recent restaurant forays and believe it’s worth eating out. Here’s how I’m getting the most mileage from restaurant meals:

Opt for a prix fixe menu. Many restaurants, from casual spots to fine-dining establishments, are offering high-value multicourse menus. One example: Border Grill in Santa Monica currently has an awesome 3-course, $18 prix fixe lunch menu with lots of options. I love variety and often have difficulty choosing from the restaurant’s terrific menu, so this bargain seems tailor-made for me. My lunch started with a green corn tamale, followed by a trio of different tacos (chicken, fish, and potato rajas), topped off by chocolate bread pudding. Delightful, and worth every penny.

Let restaurant meals inspire  your home cooking. Last night, I had dinner with friends at Frank Stitt’s wonderful Bottega Cafe in Birmingham, AL. (He’s up for a James Beard Award this year, and I’m rooting for him!) We shared an appetizer of farro salad with fresh peas, beets, and ricotta salata cheese. It was wonderful, fresh, and certainly something I could replicate at home. Only I’d use fresh chickpeas, which have captured my culinary imagination lately. 

Share. More people are splitting entrees these days, and you can do the same with a round of appetizers to share at the table for more variety.

Ask for a doggy bag. Hold your head high and tell the server to bag up the leftovers. You’re paying for the food, so you should get the most mileage out of it. Even items like leftover rice can be spun into a home supper of stir-fried rice the next night. 

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