Fine-tuning

Fine-tuning

Fine dining has been smashed during this recession, forcing high-end operators to rethink their businesses as they put the pieces together for the future.

The segment’s sales are down 12 percent, according to consumer research firm The NPD Group, and the slashed expense accounts that led to the carnage are still being closely scrutinized. Moreover, fine dining simply doesn’t fit into the plans of consumers who are still watching their spending.

“You can’t trade down to fine dining,” says David Morris, senior restaurant analyst for research firm Mintel.

But high-end restaurants are responding, and not just by cutting prices. They are preparing for an evolved fine-dining landscape—one that requires allowing customers a variety of experiences, from four-hour-long epicurean extravaganzas to a cocktail and a snack. They are expanding the high-margin offerings in their bars and event spaces, but also loosening their restrictions on what people can or can’t order.

“We’ve had to revisit what we are doing, and dip into our oldest tricks and make something out of it,” says Piero Selvaggio, based in Los Angeles, who just opened a new Valentino restaurant in the Derek Hotel in Houston.

Like many fine-dining restaurants these days, the new Valentino, much like the one in Los Angeles that was revamped two years ago, is now a dual-concept venue.

One concept is a “casual-elegant” Vin Bar with many small-plate options and wines by the glass. The other offers a more traditional fine-dining experience.

A number of well-established fine-dining restaurants in New York, including Aureole, San Domenico and Oceana, have undergone similar transformations. They have relocated or expanded their bars to offer more casual dishes and given customers more control of how much they spend.

Morris of Mintel points to Chicago restaurants like the Publican and the Bristol, which offer “a trend-forward atmosphere, very high-quality food and a high-quality experience, but at reasonable prices.”

“These restaurants are packed,” he says.

“You can go to places like these and spend $25, or $100,” he continues. “I think there’s a sense of control over what’s going to be spent that’s very appealing.”

Tracy Nieporent, partner and director of marketing for New York-based Myriad Restaurant Group, says aspects of fine dining will stay constant, and others won’t.

“There will always be a market for good food, attentive service, and genuine value.… Sometimes you have to make changes to recapture your audience,” he says, noting the recent transformation in his group of old-school French Montrachet, to Corton, with a sleeker design, more fashion-forward food and a three-star review from The New York Times.

The restaurant has an $85 prix-fixe menu and, Nieporent says, “is thriving, as did Montrachet for probably 20 of its 21 years.

“We’re pragmatically optimistic,” he concludes. “The Ferris wheel goes round and round, and at one point you’re at the top, only to descend. The good news is that you rise to the top again.”— [email protected] [3]