Slump Takes Toll On Fine Dining

Several Upscale Baltimore-area Eateries Close As Recession-wary Customers Retreat

August 30, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Tracy Hall and her husband, Josh, used to love a decadent dinner out - cocktails and appetizers, wine with dinner and dessert.

But for their five-year anniversary in June, what would have typically been a culinary blowout, the Canton couple ended up at a neighborhood tavern, trying to keep their bill under $70. With only one salary to support the family of three and layoffs happening everywhere, the Halls are holding tight to their wallets.

"We really wanted to splurge," she says. "But we are gun-shy about spending the money on things we don't need to spend it on."

Perhaps it's no surprise that two of the Halls' old favorite places were the Brass Elephant, which closed last week, and Ixia, another upscale Baltimore restaurant that folded in the thick of the nation's recession.

The Brass Elephant, Ixia, Dogwood, Jordan's Steakhouse, Brasserie Tatin, The Spice Company, Vin, Boccaccio, Pisces, Fin Steak & Seafood, and Bicycle are just a few of the area's finer dining establishments that couldn't weather the economy - not on top of the intrinsic pressures of the restaurant trade and diners' fickle tastes.

"The phone doesn't ring - what can I tell you?" says Randy Stahl, one of the owners of the Brass Elephant. "People still want to go out and be pampered but they can't afford it as frequently. That's what we've been running up against."

Stahl certainly tried to lure in customers. He offered a deal where all entrees cost $25 or less. He tried to extend the winter Restaurant Week with a $30 prix-fixe special. He tried advertising, direct mail and hanging big colorful banners. He switched out filet mignon for more economical rib-eye, salmon for halibut and added vegetarian and pasta dishes.

Nothing worked. At least not for long.

"You try to make ends meet by reinventing yourself on a daily basis. You get a little positive feedback, then two weeks go by, and it's the same old soft business," Stahl says. "It's sad and frustrating."

At Gertrude's, a restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, chef and owner John Shields says customers are still coming in, they're just spending less.

"Instead of the expensive bottle of wine, they might go with a more moderate one. Instead of getting two desserts, a couple will order one and split it," he says, adding he's noticed more people responding to deals and specials - like Tuesdays with Gertie, where 12 of the entrees cost $12.

"It feels like they're going out to a fancy kind of restaurant," he says, "but not paying that much money."

In Baltimore city, sales for the first half of 2009, compared with the first half of 2008, are down about $16 million, or 1.6 percent, according to the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

Though that doesn't seem like much of a drop, any losses at higher-end restaurants are being made up by gains at more casual, inexpensive places, says Paul Hartgen, the association's president. Around the country, while posh places like The Oceanaire Seafood Room file for Chapter 11 and Morton's The Steakhouse closes dining rooms, McDonald's is thriving, he says - adding that there are 300 McDonald's outlets within 50 miles of Baltimore.

Higher-priced restaurants are struggling to keep their heads above water by lowering menu prices, cutting portion sizes and cutting hours, he says.

Counterintuitively, across the country, menu prices are surging this year, showing their strongest increases in 27 years, Hartgen says, even as wholesale food prices drop.

In Baltimore, certain restaurants such as the Brass Elephant and Ixia were hurting even more because of their midtown locations, says Stahl, anchoring Charles Street even as the theaters moved, the city's opera company went out of business and crowds flocked to the trendier Harbor East.

"We had an excellent almost-30-year run," Stahl says. "But our clientele died off. During the week, we've had only 10 or 12 reservations. And Friday and Saturdays were only a little better."

He might have been able to hang in there with a loan, but because his business was losing money, he couldn't find a bank that would work with him. He reached into his own pockets to make ends meet and relied on the patience and credit of his vendors.

Kristi Metzger, a 27-year-old freelance journalist from Charles Village who's loath to spend anything close to $30 on an entree, trolls the Web looking for deals, coupons and specials. That's the incentive she needs to eat out these days.

"I definitely still go out, but I try to find a much more frugal approach," she says. For instance, for Metzger's anniversary dinner last week, she booked a reservation at Pazo in time to claim the Restaurant Week discount.

"I do love atmosphere and I do love fine china, a white tablecloth and spectacular service, but anymore, a good night out is more about who I'm out with," she says. "I can go to Chuck E. Cheese and still have a blast."

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