Back in the first Bush administration, a hot-dog stand in downtown Manhattan called Gray's Papaya did its part for the economy by posting bright orange signs hawking a Recession Special--two franks and a cup of papaya juice for $2.45. The recession went away, and I forgot all about the special until a few nights ago when, driving up Sixth Avenue, I noticed those signs again.
Few observers outside Gray's fluorescent-lit precincts are using the R word yet, but reports are piling up that the restaurant business across the country is down from last year's record high. Many places are fighting back with deals and gimmicks. New York City's Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that this year more places than usual continued the $20.01 summer Restaurant Week lunch special after Restaurant Week ended. Early this summer, even Alain Ducasse launched a discount at his New York branch: salad with a choice of lobster, crabmeat or roast chicken; one glass of wine; cheese or dessert; and assorted little frills--all for just $65. By ordinary standards that may not be a bargain, but at this, perhaps the most expensive restaurant in town, it's about half the regular tab.
Other establishments have chosen a lower-profile approach. Some chefs are quietly letting the air out of their menu prices without issuing press releases, lest they look desperate for customers. San Francisco's Fifth Floor has a new section on its list: "Backroads/Burgundy," featuring less known (and cheaper) appellations. At Zealous in Chicago, they're pouring free mineral water throughout the meal--a nice idea--with no fanfare.
If value for money seems like a foggy concept from some far-off past, perhaps it's because our sense of what food is worth was seriously distorted during the past half-decade, when we scarcely blinked at $35 bowls of soup and $27 hamburgers. The current return to reason should help ensure that dinner for two will remain within reach of people who don't have offshore savings accounts.
The danger in the situation--aside from the inevitable killing off of weak and infirm restaurants--is that as prices get less daring, so will the food. The last time the country needed a Recession Special, we turned to macaroni and cheese, roast chicken and other feel-good standbys. The boom that followed brought a period of unrestrained inventiveness, when chefs were game for almost anything: flavored foams, vegetable sorbets, salty ice cream. Even the structure of a meal was open to experiment, as diners were encouraged to jury-rig their own menus, eat dessert first, whatever. Now that money feels like money again, let's hope restaurants don't back away from innovation. The wait for the next boom will seem a lot longer if we have to get by on hot dogs alone.