After hours

After hours

Operators turn down the lights, turn up the flavors for late-night guests

There’s a certain kind of romance attached to restaurants that are open late. Would anyone remember “Nighthawks,” the iconic painting of lost souls bound together in a diner at some misbegotten hour, if Edward Hopper had decided to set his scene at, say, 7:30 p.m.?

Even more than romance, however, there’s a certain kind of business to be tendered as the hour grows late, and an increasing number of operators are angling to participate in what might well be regarded as a whole new daypart. With a mix of subtle tweaks and more elaborate alterations, restaurants in different segments are recasting their nighttime offerings as more than just the stuff of a typical evening’s dinner. 

“You can always seem to find French fries somewhere if you need to,” said Cheri Allen, office manager at the Night Kitchen in Seattle. “But it’s hard to find really amazing food late at night.” 

To that end, the Night Kitchen opened about a year ago with the express purpose of catering to night owls looking for more than just simple sustenance. The restaurant opens at the not-altogether-unusual hour of 6 p.m., but it stays open until 6 a.m., with an operational sweet spot between midnight and 2 a.m. 

Among the biggest sellers on the menu are snacking items like fried cheese curds made with local artisanal cheese, and a bistro burger featuring beef from nearby Oregon. 

However, an equal amount of business is owed to a full breakfast menu that is available at all hours. 

“It doesn’t really change by time of day,” Allen said of the 50-50 split between sales of breakfast and dinner fare. “There’s not any time of day when French toast is the wrong choice. But either way, we strive for coziness, with soft lighting everywhere — which is important when you’ve been out drinking for four hours.”

Drinking, of course, plays a significant role in many patrons’ notions of worthwhile late-night activity. For the Orlando, Fla.-based barbecue chain Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, which has worked to expand its late-night operations in recent months, bar business makes up half of sales between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., as opposed to 15 percent to 18 percent during lunch and dinner, said director of operations John Ryan. 

To help propel that further, the chain has made adjustments to the restaurants’ ambience and energy after 10 p.m., including increasing volume levels for music and altering its proprietary “Bones TV” video broadcasts to become more “outlandish” and “borderline risqué” as the hour grows later, according to Ryan. 

More important, however, is not losing sight of the food. 

“With a mix of drink and food,” Ryan said, “it’s very important to keep the food relevant.”

The casual-dining chain Applebee’s in Lenexa, Kan., has tried to split the difference, offering discounts on shareable appetizers like chicken wings, quesadillas and wonton tacos after 9 p.m. at many of its locations, and ramping up its drinks menu to include cocktails like the recently added berry sangria and a lemon-drop martini. The chain has even created a Girls’ Night Out application for its Facebook fan page.

The machinery for luring people is less technologically minded at the Vanderbilt, an independent gastropub in Brooklyn, N.Y. 

“We just lower the lights, turn the music up a bit and create a little more intimate environment,” said chef Saul Bolton. 

Catering to a nighttime crowd was part of the plan from the restaurant’s opening, but Bolton and his staff have found the time to focus on it more in the past six months, with an abridged late-night menu available on weekends from midnight to 2 a.m. 

Sales from that period now represent 10 percent of a typical day’s business, Bolton said, with special status afforded to “flavor-forward, higher-quality drinking food” like a golden pickled egg with Hyderabadi chutney and munchably blistered shishito peppers with pimento salt. 

“As a business it totally makes sense and is something we will continue to build,” said Bolton, who expects business to continue to grow as the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights develops and courts more late-night patrons. 

The proprietors of Southwest Delivery Express in Amherst, Mass., had a captive late-night audience from the start: college students. The project grew out of regular dining-hall service on the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts, with operations handled on the same premises and with the same equipment as normal dinner service, but with some special offerings, namely chicken wings — boneless and traditional — and hand-tossed pizza. They’re available for delivery until 2 a.m. Sunday to Wednesday, 3 a.m. on Thursday and 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

All food is delivered by working students on foot, which plays well in terms of environmental sustainability, and student customers are able to pay for their late-night munchies with funds from their campus debit cards. 

“There are a lot of students up late at night and always looking for something to eat,” said UMass director of retail dining David Eichstaedt. “A lot of our program was just based on what we saw.”