Dining Out, Cashing In

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:12

    It’s something of a universal truth that people look better bathed in candlelight than lit by the fluorescent sheen of a flickering kitchenette bulb. While this one fact may not induce New Yorkers to stampede into the city’s restaurants, the economic downturn just may.

    That’s right; Wall Street’s misfortune can be turned into a foodie’s dream, especially in a city where the restaurant industry, once accustomed to a steady diet of lavish spenders and over-the-top parties, is tightening its belt. Thanks to most diners’ low cash flow, now is the best time to get past the doors of New York’s forbidden culinary kingdoms. Many of the lines that used to snake out of the city’s finest restaurants are now diminishing faster than the Dow Jones average; and facing a recession, dining establishments are responding to the pressure to fill their empty chairs by attracting patrons in very different tax brackets.

    “We’ve noticed that people are more apt to be particular when it comes to service and quality in times like this,” observes Peter Zwiener, owner of Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Murray Hill. Though consumers may need some prodding to return to the tablecloth-and-wine mentality, there are plenty of reasons why now is the perfect time to start booking reservations. Namely, it’s a buyer’s market.

    “People are sticking closer to home when it comes to their dining options and when they do come in the check averages are lower” says Emiliano Coppa, owner of Park Slope’s revered Italian spot Al Di La Trattoria.

    Tight economic times create mountains of additional stress for the average citizen. In the face of so much instability, the occasional foray into a luxurious restaurant can provide a much-needed hiatus from daily stressors—and now that you can get in to the places you’ve always heard about, why not take advantage? Follow the three R’s of recession dining to make eating out less of an unjustifiable indulgence and more like an attainable reward. 


    Reservations roulette New Yorkers may consider themselves independent, but when it comes to gastronomic sensibilities, they’re pack animals. Without fail, the 8 p.m. timeslot is a magnet for reservation-seeking patrons. It’s so routine that Tracy Nieporent, a partner at the restaurant group behind the Tribeca Grill and Nobu, has dreamed up a solution: “We often kid about opening a restaurant called ‘Dinner at Eight,’ where there would be one seating. If someone asked for eight, we’d have to say, ‘Sorry, we only have eight!’” For diners looking to take advantage of the current slump, getting seated at some of the city’s best restaurants is far more likely with an early reservation—while the big guns might still get their primetime seats, the surrounding hours are less likely to be crowded these days. Anyway, grabbing an earlier dinner times can also ensure dishes will arrive more quickly, and with less mistakes, because the kitchen is juggling far fewer orders simultaneously. 


    Rethink the bar We’re no strangers to long nights at the bar, but apparently some restaurants are now encouraging patrons to do more than just drink there. In an effort to offer more economical dining—and avoid the gridlock of a holiday-season dining room—many of the city’s finest eateries are welcoming patrons to dine in their bar areas. The good news is this doesn’t necessarily require perching on a stool all night. A number of restaurants have dedicated spaces, like Tabla’s Bread Bar, the Tavern Room at Gramercy Tavern and the bustling bar at Union Square Café (pictured), to accommodate diners looking for a spot at prime watering holes without the wait and hefty price tag. “Sitting at the bar, guests can enjoy an a la carte menu while experiencing the same service and hospitality offered in the dining room. And they can decide to dine with us last minute—there are no reservations required,” says Will Guidara, General Manager at Eleven Madison Park. With increased flexibility, swifter service and a lively atmosphere, dining mere steps away from the nearest beer tap may just be the perfect solution to holiday-time family visits.


    Reschedule Rare is the person that relishes Monday, and restaurants are no different. Traditionally, dining traffic is slower than average on the first day of the workweek. Between thin wallets and lowered consumer confidence, restaurants have now become virtually desolate on these evenings.  “On Mondays, it’s easier for customers to find a table because we mostly get restaurant industry workers that come in on their day off,” says Coppa. “Plus, our kitchen staff likes to impress the mixed crowd.” For diners who want to receive doting service and other perks not listed on the menu, the most arduous day of the workweek poses the best chance for an outstanding dining experience.

    Small changes in restaurant operations and offerings can also be used to great advantage during times of financial turmoil.  To accommodate diners and increase revenue, places like Five Points in the East Village, which offers a brunch that draws Disneyworld-style lines, has expanded its hours to open at 11 a.m. in order to decrease wait times for early patrons who are more likely to bolt than drop double digits on eggs. Even hipster haven Foremans has eliminated dishes topping $26 from its pricey menu.

    Ultimately, the economic downturn may signal a sea change in the way restaurants cater to their clientele. Facing a greater demand for customers, the culinary service industry is answering the call with an arsenal of options to lure reluctant diners out of their living rooms.  Despite the economic uncertainty of the preceding months, one thing is for sure: An impending recession is the great equalizer, particularly in places as stratified as the New York culinary scene; and keeping these tips in mind, those who venture out while restaurants are still hungry for business will feast heartily.