L.A. economizes with moderate menu formats

L.A. economizes with moderate menu formats

LOS ANGELES JiRaffe [3]. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

After strong sales this summer, when his rustic French-American menu drew local gourmets and international tourists like a magnet, business at JiRaffe suddenly became much more unpredictable. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

With economic turmoil affecting even his well-heeled clientele, Lunetta’s 70-seat dining room now could be slow one night but turning 130 covers the next. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

“It’s getting really hard to manage labor,” he said. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

Though guests are still ordering high-ticket items, Lunetta is now considering adding some lower-priced pastas to the menu. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

“Maybe I’ll do a great bowl of pasta and a glass of wine for $24, and guests might order a second glass of wine or dessert,” he said. “You have to give people options.” —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

While Southern California has been among the nation’s hardest-hit markets for many months because of its now-burst housing bubble, many restaurant operators in the sprawling region hadn’t felt a severe impact until October, when banks began to fail and the stock market crashed. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

“The day Lehman Brothers went out of business, restaurant business must have dropped 30 percent,” said Jerry Prendergast, a local foodservice consultant who works primarily with independent operators. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

For years, restaurateurs in Los Angeles have tapped a vibrant, free-spending economy, but the bloom is off the bling these days. While embracing more moderately priced menu formats, some operators are scuttling higher-end expansion plans and devising concepts that might lure a more budget-minded gourmet. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

“We’ve gotten spoiled,” Lunetta said. “[A bit of a downturn] is probably not a bad thing in that we might start to appreciate our success and understand it. The sad thing is, though, that great operators and great businesses aren’t going to survive.” —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

One recent casualty in Los Angeles was Paperfish, opened almost a year ago by acclaimed chef Joachim Splichal as part of his bicoastal Patina Restaurant Group [4]. The upscale seafood restaurant closed Oct. 30 after the company exercised a lease option to return the space to its landlord. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

“With the current economic climate, it did not make sense to continue to foster this new concept,” company founder Splichal said. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

Another could-be victim is Sonora Café, an upscale, contemporary Mexican concept that debuted in downtown Los Angeles in 1986, then moved in 1994 to a popular midcity location on La Brea Avenue. Ron Salisbury, who also owns the local landmark El Cholo [5] chain, said Sonora Cafe’s landlord intends to quadruple the rent with a lease renewal. Salisbury is hoping to relocate. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

On Melrose Avenue, at the site of the original Patina restaurant, chef-owner Michael Cimarusti’s acclaimed Providence [6] seafood restaurant had been tallying $150 average tabs until October. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

“I don’t want to jinx it, but 2008 has been our best year since we opened” said Donato Poto, co-owner of the three-year-old restaurant. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

However, when banks started failing in October and the stock market plummeted, for a few weeks Providence’s dining room was frighteningly empty. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

“It was like someone stopped up the faucet,” Poto said. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

Then the 2008 Michelin Guide gave Providence a rare two-star review, and business rebounded. Nonetheless, the economy has forced Poto and Cimarusti to re-think their concept for a second restaurant. They were considering a brasserie, but several such chef-driven places have opened within the past year or are planned, including David Myers’ Comme Ça [7] in West Hollywood and Alain Giraud’s Anisette in Santa Monica. Thomas Keller also plans to open a Bouchon branch in Beverly Hills next year. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

Now, Poto said of the partners’ new place, “whatever it will be, it will be at a lower price point than Providence.” —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

One potential local role model is former Patina group executive chef Octavio Becerra’s attention-getting place in Glendale, called Palate Food + Wine. The “medium plate” wine bar restaurant boasts no dish over $20 and affordable wines in a friendly, informal atmosphere. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

Among other break-the-mold Los Angeles newbies is XIV, a small-plates place recently opened on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood by multiconcept chef-restaurateur Michael Mina, known for his eponymous restaurants in Las Vegas and San Francisco as well as Nobhill, Seablue and Bourbon Steak [8]. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

Rather than asking guests to share XIV’s small plates, Mina serves each diner an individual portion, typically three or four beautifully designed bites, and charges $8 per person. An eight-course tasting menu selected by the chef is $55, and 14 courses are $95—relative bargains considering the quality of the food, some diners have concluded. XIV also features a couch-filled, living-room-like atmosphere. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

Deal makers say it is becoming much harder to open new restaurants in Los Angeles. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

Consultant Prendergast was working on a new restaurant project in Hollywood recently before funding dried up. Other concepts he has seen die include a high-end Asian restaurant and an Indian restaurant. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

“It’s hard to get financing, and people are holding onto their cash right now,” he said. “Even people [for whom] throwing $100,000 cash into a restaurant is nothing, they aren’t doing it.” —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

Still, new restaurants that were funded before the economy turned dire are opening around the city this fall, but they’re offering comfort foods at low prices. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

“Six months to a year from now, though, we won’t be seeing so many openings,” Prendergast said. —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,

For now, at least, “it’s burgers or pizza and beer for under $25,” he said, “and we’re not looking at $2 million budgets to open, we’re looking at $1 million budgets to open.” —When the stock market took the first of several steep dives last month, chef-owner Raphael Lunetta felt a turn for the worse at his noted Santa Monica restaurant,