Wednesday, February 11, 2009

NOW THAT ALL THE PAPERS ARE LAYING OFF THEIR RESTAURANT CRITICS, IT'S TIME TO STEP INTO THE VOID: I've been keeping tabs on the things that NYC restaurants are doing to stay afloat in the current subpar operating environment. (Ok, that's a polite way of saying that people are eating out a whole lot less, and in a city with more restaurants than employed investment bankers, that's a problem.)

Jean-Georges Vongerichten has been quick to act -- he's introduced semi-permanent $35 prix-fixe dinner menus at all of his restaurants. (You can check them out under "menus/winter promotion" for each restaurant.) But the really interesting one is Top Chef's Tom Colicchio, who is inventing new, cheap restaurants within his existing ones. The first one was Chef Damon Wise's Frugal Friday: in Craft's private dining room (which is presumably not getting a whole lot of biz from the Wall Street celebratory blowout crowd that fueled the growth of fancy private dining rooms throughout the city), Wise is offering a Friday night menu of market-driven offerings for under $10 each. "Snacks," for $5, include things like smoked beef tartar and smoked paprika flatbread; there are 6" pizzas for $7, with toppings like fresh ricotta, black cabbage, and truffle vinaigrette (that's one pizza); "Small Plates" include a griddled pork belly with braised peanuts and cranberry mustard; the enticing "Offal" section has a crispy pig ear with deviled egg salad and celery, and so forth.

And today Colicchio's press team announced Halfsteak, to be housed in the front dining room of Craftsteak. Halfsteak, for those of you without a hankering for offal, sounds yummy, offering up an all-over-the-place menu of half-orders of steaks, small plates, sandwiches, and something called "small pots" (pork and beans, chicken and lobster pot pie, and so on), as well as half-pints of beer, cocktails called things like Half-Baked and Not Half Bad), and individual little desserts -- check out this Eater link for all the details.

Unlike Vongerichten, who's offering up inexpensive options at his more expensive restaurants, Colicchio is basically opening new restaurants. Everything at both Halfsteak and Frugal Friday is set up to bring out the cash-poor diner (which would appear to include, well, everyone) who nonetheless doesn't want to learn to use his stove. It's not sitting there at Nougatine, wishing you could order the non-prix fixe options -- it's an entire restaurant where every choice is within the set budgetary constraint. I'm not totally sure whether Colicchio is going to make money off of this, but it's got to be better than looking out at an empty dining room, right?

New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike -- what creative approaches are your local restauranteurs adopting to weather the storm?

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