How eateries cope with economic belt-tightening

TABLE TALK

October 29, 2008|By elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

I've been seeing a lot of national stories lately that the economy is finally affecting restaurants across the board and not just the big chains that went bankrupt earlier this year. But the stories usually focus on New York or Los Angeles and not what's happening in the Baltimore area.

I'm not ready to write the definitive story on the subject. (And, really, does it need to be written? Of course, restaurants are being affected.) I am interested in what local places are doing to survive, so I picked up the phone and called a few randomly.

Jordan's, an upscale steakhouse in Ellicott City, for instance, hasn't seen much of a drop-off in business. It's the kind of business, said general manager David Lynch, that's changed.

The restaurant is known for offering both prime and choice grades of beef. "There's been a steady increase in sales for choice," said Lynch. "Before, it was about 60-40 prime; it's steadily going the other way."

For the first time in the six years Jordan's has been in business, it's introducing a bar menu priced between $5 and $10. The star will be a chopped tenderloin burger. And look for Jordan's first happy hour, from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, with "mini-tinis" for $5 and $6, $5 glasses of wine and $2.95 beers.

Three... in Patterson Park offers a completely different kind of dining-out experience. It's a neighborhood-friendly bar-restaurant that has a lot of small plates as well as entrees on its menu. David Bersch of Three... said that the place is relying more on the neighborhood now for customers during the week because business from outside has slowed, although the draw is still wide-ranging on weekends.

The new fall/winter menu has three new economy entrees. "We wanted to offer some less-expensive alternatives," said Bersch. "People really can't afford to go out." Pepper-jack meatloaf and beef stew with cheddar are priced at $13; a vegetarian wild-mushroom risotto is $16.

I had read that some New York restaurants are staying open longer hours because of the economy, so I asked Bersch if Three... was doing that.

"We've noticed that people are going out more for cocktails," he said, as an alternative to dinner. While the restaurant isn't officially open later than it used to be, "We're more open to people hanging out with us all night."

When Corks in Federal Hill reopened, as I reported last week, it did so with extended hours. Helen's Garden in Canton has started serving brunch on Saturday as well as Sunday. It's also started staying open between Sunday brunch and dinner, said owner Ed Scherer, and is extending its hours till 1 a.m. (or 1:30 a.m. if the bar remains busy), offering light fare and drinks in both the bar and dining room. "Sitting at home worrying only makes it worse."

Whatever your favorite restaurant is, it's worth a phone call to see what new specials are on tap. Donna's, for instance, has recently started $10 pasta nights on Mondays at all locations. As of last weekend, Tabrizi's in South Baltimore began offering a three-course dinner for $30.

"It's our way to stimulate and encourage new and repeated business in this shady economy," said owner Michael Tabrizi.

You can also check 600block.com. It lists today's deals at various local restaurants to the right on its home page. Tom Poe, who runs the site, says it has seen a 70 percent increase in visitors looking for specials in the past month.

"The biggest trend," he said, "is upscale restaurants adding deals like prix-fixe menus and half-price bottles of wine [such as] Ruth's Chris' $36 economy-proof menu."

Not every restaurant says it's hurting. Dara Bunjon, who does public relations for Sotto Sopra in Mount Vernon, said that the Italian restaurant is like a social club for many of its customers.

"The numbers of our diners have remained the same and they have not cut back on what they order," she said. "In other words, they are spending per person what they were spending four years ago."

Baba's opens If you're worried about the economy, how does a restaurant sound where the most expensive dinner item is $9? This is no greasy spoon, either. Baba's Mediterranean Kitchen (745 E. Fort Ave., 410-727-7482, babaskitchen.net) opened in South Baltimore recently in what had been a pizza shop after a year's worth of renovations.

Owner and self-styled head cook (he says "chef" sounds too grand) Farid Salloum worked with designer Kinnereth Ellentuck and artist Rebecca Castle to create an imaginative, colorful space. Tables are made out of bowling-alley lanes, for instance! However, there are only five tables; 75 percent of his business is carryout, Salloum told me.

Although Salloum is Arabic, he wanted his food to be more global, so you'll find kebabs, falafel, spanakopita and even a couple of Italian dishes on his Mediterranean menu.

Baba's is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, with brunch. If you do decide to grab one of those five tables, you're welcome to BYOB.

He came back Cafe on the Square (11 S. Paca St., 410-625-1441, cafe-ots.com) is open again after being closed a month; and John Shin, the original owner, is back after working on a dairy farm in Frederick for three years.

When I called, Shin said he had sold the cafe so his parents could retire; but when the place was put up for auction, he decided to buy it again. (Yes, his parents are helping him out until he builds the business back to where it was.)

The draw, he said, is that everything is made fresh every day, with lots of heart-healthy dishes, salads, pastas and gourmet sandwiches made on freshly baked, chemical-free bread on the menu.

The cafe is open for breakfast and lunch 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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