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The Foreseeable Future of Dining: Lunch Specials and Overbooked Tables?

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Frank Bruni paints a portrait of the future of fine dining today, and the glass is half-empty or half-full depending on whether you’re a customer or a restaurateur. One thing’s for sure — if it’s a glass of wine at Eleven Madison Park we’re talking about, it’s probably going to be cheaper. Bruni points out that restaurants burdened by higher fuel and food prices are using creative means to get money out of their strapped customers, since raising menu prices is out of the question. The piece starts on a positive note — “the 7:30 dinner reservation that you’re always trying and failing to get will become easier pickings this fall” — and then takes a turn.

Among the trends Bruni has already spotted:

• More late-night and happy-hour specials: “Starting Monday, Hundred Acres, in Soho, will offer a happy-hour special, from 5 to 7 p.m., of $2 organic corn dogs and $3 ice cream floats at the bar.”
• More comfort food that customers are sure to go for.
• Tables that are easier to score during prime hours, but longer waits once you get to the restaurant. Reservationists are overbooking during this time, lest they scare off potential customers by offering them early tables.
• Charges for bread refills, partly to discourage diners from camping out at tables, since the pressure to turn them over is greater than ever.
• Ingredient substitutions: At Trestle on Tenth, where average dinner prices are down to $45 from about $55 a year ago, morel mushrooms are being used instead of shiitake.
• More casual dining projects from upscale restaurateurs.
• Expanded bar menus.
• Lunch specials and cheaper wines: “Eleven Madison Park, in the Flatiron district, has a new $38 prix fixe lunch, and its servers, like those at other restaurants in Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, are taking greater pains to spotlight affordable wines within diners’ narrowly circumscribed comfort zones.”
• And the good news, per Taras Wallach of Little Giant: lots of grits!

Of course, all of this is sort of irrelevant if you’re a European with the equivalent of Monopoly money to spend. As Bruni points out, the New York dining world is quickly being divided between the have-Euros and the have-nots, something that’s not necessarily a good thing for managers since Europeans tend not to tip as well. Indeed, a restaurateur recently forwarded us a staff e-mail from the restaurant’s GM that read: “Something to talk about at the meeting tomorrow … foreigners being terrible tippers … there, i said it. tonight [one server] was left $20 on a $350 check!!! FAIL. and it was NOT the service … they were totally happy … it happens nearly EVERY night i manage … could we drop those polite ‘hi, you're not from the US and you're going to screw us, aren't you?’ cards that tell how to tip in every language? something to address … i know it's a tricky situation, but it needs to be discussed.”

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