Restaurant takeout gets more takers

March 12, 2003|By ROB KASPER

RECENTLY I did something trendy. I bought supper at a fine restaurant, then carried it home in boxes and reheated it.

This was out of character for me. Usually once I enter the door of a high-quality restaurant, I sit down and dine. Or, if I do get takeout food, I go for the straightforward, cheap stuff from joints.

Yet there I was, in a white-tablecloth restaurant, Germano's in Little Italy, carrying out boxes of lasagna, cannelloni, manicotti, eggplant Parmigiano, and fusilli with vegetables at a little less than $5 a box. I took them home, tossed them in the microwave for several minutes and served them to my son and wife for a weeknight supper. They were delighted - especially my wife, who was relieved of cooking duty for the evening.

These dishes, which were completely cooked in the restaurant kitchen then flash-frozen, had pretty good flavor, especially the manicotti and the eggplant. But the dishes I ate for supper at home didn't measure up to the ones I had eaten earlier that day at lunch in the restaurant. (I had planned on grabbing the boxed food and hitting the road, but old habits are hard to break. Once in the restaurant, I felt compelled to sit down and eat lunch.) The microwave is a marvel, but there is still a qualitative difference between food fresh from the oven, and reheated in the microwave.

Later, chefs and owners at a handful of Baltimore-area high-end restaurants told me that they are seeing a growing number of customers who tote supper home. These customers are willing both to drive to the restaurant to pick the food up, and to pay the sometimes high freight. The restaurateurs told me that dishes ranging from $65 lobsters at Linwood's to $4.50 pastas at Germano's have moved out their doors.

This fare is several notches above the prepared food sold at grocery stores or the fast food served at conventional takeout joints. Moreover, it replaces meals cooked at home, a pattern I find fascinating on a number of fronts, including the fact that for some folks, restaurant food, not home-cooked food, is becoming the standard of high-quality fare.

Germano Fabiani said that his takeout food, packaged in black plastic 22-ounce containers, has been moving well since he began selling it at his Little Italy restaurant a month ago. He added takeout fare to his menu as a practical matter, he said, a way to provide another outlet for the dishes turned out by his kitchen.

Initially, he underestimated the demand, and a few times dishes sold out. But now, he said, he has a better handle on the demand, and makes about 130 servings of the takeout fare each day.

In Owings Mills, Linwood Dame, proprietor of Linwood's and Due, said he, too, does a steady business in gourmet to-go meals.

The numbers are not gigantic, Dame said, maybe 10 to 12 orders a night. But the demand is increasing, and the appetites are wide-ranging.

"People order anything to go that is on the menu, from veal chops to rack of lamb," Dame told me in a telephone conversation. "It is amazing."

The staff at Linwood's, like most of the other high-end restaurants I surveyed, handles a takeout order as if it were an order from a customer seated in the dining room. "We write it up like a regular ticket," Dame said, "and send it into the kitchen."

The difference is that rather than artfully positioning an entree on a plate and putting sauce on the side, the kitchen staff puts the food in plastic containers called "clam shells," Dame said. The sauce goes in a separate container, and the whole order is wrapped in plastic, to keep it warm, he said.

Chefs aren't always happy to see their cuisine stuffed into multiple plastic containers, Dame said, but carryout adds to the revenue flow.

Tony Foreman, who along with his wife, chef Cindy Wolf, runs Charleston and Petit Louis restaurants, said sometimes, in the name of cuisine, they have to say "no" to their customers' takeout requests.

"There are delicate fish dishes, like sole, that don't travel," Foreman said. "We tell our customers that if they tried to take it home, it would be mush. They understand."

Foreman said the staff also advises carryout customers to order steak a shade rarer than they normally would. "If they like theirs medium-rare, we tell them they should order it rare, because it will finishing cooking as it rests on the way home," he said.

Weeknights seem to be busier nights for high-end takeout fare than weekends, the restaurateurs told me. But no one seemed to have a firm handle on the factors that motivate customers to place high-end takeout orders.

Foreman has noticed that a few hours after the completion of a big lacrosse game, there is an increase in takeout orders at Petit Louis in Roland Park. And he observed that, "for some reason," tax day, April 15, saw a surge in takeout orders last year.

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