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Dining in general downhill due to economy?

Hey folks. I was just reading a bunch of threads and it made me wonder, have people experienced dining out in general going downhill due to the economy? What I mean is, do you see many restaurants cutting corners, buying less expensive products that do change the taste in a dish. I can say from my experiences lately dining out, even at some formerly favorite places of mine, I have noticed some of them really have gone downhill in quality. I know food costs are at an all time high, but it's unfortunately making me want to stay in for dinner more often than going out. Nothing annoys me more than spending money on something I can make at home for less money and better quality. I'd love to hear some thoughts. Also, which places ARE NOT cutting corners or who have not changed their quality during these tough times?

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  1. I haven't really seen it, though I do notice that so many restaurants I go to now are nearly empty during the height of the dinner hour. I'm sure there are indeed places that are cutting corners, though--I just haven't been to them yet.

    I was talking about this with someone who runs a regional tourism site earlier today, and he thinks that the chains, and generally, the restaurants that you have to drive to (near malls, shopping centers, etc.), are definitely being affected by the economy. He also thinks that many restaurants that are located in downtown areas of towns and small cities are actually doing a little better, mainly because the prices are more or less remaining low and people can walk (or do a really short drive) to them. Perhaps this is why places such as Applebee's, Macaroni Grill, and TGI Fridays are doing so poorly. I know a couple of people who went to the Macaroni Grill during the middle of the day a couple of weeks ago, and it was nearly empty. That never would have happened a few years ago.

    2 Replies
    1. re: hiddenboston

      the Macaroni Grill at The Loop in Methuen folded. not that i'll ever miss it.

      as i don't generally go to the larger chains i cannot speak to those but what i have noticed is that some of the smaller places that used to show indifference are now making it a point of making sure that folks are happy.

      i cannot cite specific examples but what i'm becoming aware of is that servers are taking the time to explain things where as in the past they'd drop the menus, get a drink order then return for the food order. they are now taking the time to explain items and solicit likes/dislikes then making recommendations. i'm not hearing the actual conversation as this could just be the servers trying to up-sell to better their tips. either way, it's a Good Thing.

      1. re: ScubaSteve

        Improved service could in part reflect decreased business - waitstaff covering fewer occupied tables would have more time to spend with/on their customers.

    2. Yeah, anyone who tells you the economy is fine doesn't know anyone in the restaurant business. There's clearly corner-cutting going on: smaller portions, substitutions of cheaper cuts of meat, everyday mushrooms in place of exotics, and so on. I've seen prices rise at some places: Pops capped its entrees at $20 when it opened, but has some $25 entrees now. I also see the empty-restaurant problem everywhere. I fully expect to see a string of closings in the coming year of places that were doing great a year ago. I see the least changes at the highest end: I think a lot of high-end places are trying to weather the downturn just by eating margin rather than risk alienating their wealthy regulars.

      1. Hi everyone. Please keep the discussion focused on restaurants in the Boston area. General discussion of the economy's impact on the industry will be off topic here. Thanks very much!

        3 Replies
        1. re: The Chowhound Team

          "keep the discussion focused on restaurants in the Boston area"

          i think it is completetely relavent... if not, suggest another board for this discussion. people are curious as to the downturn and its effect on restaurant quality in boston with specific examples noted.

          1. re: bowmore36

            In my recent visit to L'Espalier in their last week at the old location, I was surprised that there were only 3 or 4 other tables occupied in the 2 hours I was there, though I don't know what their normal lunch traffic is.

            This downturn efect will likely only get worse as our summer supply of NE locally grown food comes to an end and the transportation costs become a bigger factor in the winter months.

            1. re: bowmore36

              The Not About Food board is the best place to discuss the economy, how it affects people's dining choices and how restaurants are coping with the constraints imposed by the current economical climate. Those issues are facing diners and restaurants nationwide and the Not About Food board can host the discussion with wider input and no geographical restrictions.

              If you have specific examples of Boston restaurants and how the economy is affecting them in particular, it's fine to keep those discussions here.

          2. I have noticed what you say MC Slim JB, re: the higher end restaurants trying to stay on top of their game, but I have noticed other smaller or not as higher end places who are cutting corners or serving smaller portions yet charging the same prices. It's just making me wonder, which Boston restaurants have still been good while which ones other people have experienced are cutting the corners to the point where it's glaringly noticeable.

            1 Reply
            1. re: BackBayGirl

              have to say... dinner at the bar @ #9 the other night. tasting menu was outstanding. definitely no corners cut there. there were no small portions at all. i barely was able to finish the last couple of courses. and of course the quality was there as well.

            2. You can almost walk into most places on a Sat evening without a res. Think it's bad now, wait till home heating drains some wallets.

              6 Replies
              1. re: treb

                Which places?

                In Boston, I've found Saturday nights in many of the more popular restaurants to be invaded by the B&T crowd. I could see how the locals might be staying away on that night, in particular. I've given up on even bothering with a few restaurants on Saturdays.

                Locals can sustain a restaurant during a downturn, and it looks like they've been showing up at places like Coda, Franklin Cafe, Pops, Petit Robert South End, and Tremont 647 on weeknights - it seems Thursday in particular. Not sure about other areas of Boston.

                I've also noticed that some restaurants definitely have not attracted locals. DaVinci's comes to mind - I had to dodge the tumbleweed last time I walked by on a weekday evening. Not a mark against DaVinci - I'm not sure that great food is sufficient (or even necessary).

                1. re: WilliamTheFoodie

                  Bridge and tunnel. Those coming into the city from the suburbs.

                  And, we have been to Trattoria Toscana, L'Espalier, Hammersley's and the Asana and the M Lounge in the past two weeks and they have all been busy. However, last weekend was the Head of the Charles so it's always a good weekend for restaurants.

                2. re: treb

                  On Saturday evening ( Nov. 1 ) my wife and I found ourselves near Inman Square after doing some shopping, so we decided to pop in to Ole. one of our favorite places, for a quick dinner. The time was 6:55pm, we entered and asked if we could have a table. We were sternly told by the hostess, "you have to have a reservation!" That is literally all she said, along with handing us a card saying "next time, call first."

                  1. re: TheTrout

                    Really? Wow, that's pretty sad. So much for trying to win over customers during tough times like these. I assume you won't be going back there anytime soon?

                    1. re: hiddenboston

                      Let's just say, they've dropped a bit on our list of places to go. The thing that amazed us was the place was about half full and presuming that some of the tables were for reserved for 8pm, wouldn't you think a smart hostess would say
                      " can you eat and be gone in about an hour?" Our answer would have been yes, and that would seem like a win-win situation. But given how quickly we were shown the door, hanging around to try and negotiate a table seemed pointless.

                      1. re: TheTrout

                        Interesting- I had a similar situation at Ole when we walked in about a month ago with my mom. The hostess asked if we could eat in 90 mins, we said yes, and they expedited our orders to make sure we were in and out on time. Actually, the hostess even checked in with us during dinner to let us know one of the reservations from later was going to be 15 mins late so not to rush and that we could have the table for an extra 15 mins. I left thinking it was a very positive experience with being honest and making it a win-win situation. I'm sorry to hear that they didn't offer the same concesion for you.

                3. Two things I noticed in Cambridge recently:

                  1) In order to improve its margins, Cafe Barada has stopped accepting credit cards. The chow is still pretty tasty.

                  2) Grabbed a pizza from Armando's over the weekend, and for the second visit in a row, the cheese was off, tasting kind of gummy and industrial. I'm guessing they've opted for cheaper ingredients in lieu of raising prices; honestly, I would really have preferred the latter. I still liked the sauce and crust, but the cheese brought down the pie to the point I would no longer go out of my way for it. Just in case, I'll give them another chance in a few weeks, but I'm not holding out much optimism.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: finlero

                    Hey, some good news for a change: my pizza from Armando's this weekend was as good as ever.

                    Also a side note: we had a super early dinner at Bob and Timmy's in Providence on Saturday around 5:30. All of Federal Hill was so busy that it took me three passes just to find a parking space. We were seated at the last empty table, and when we left at 6:30, there was a line out the door. (Oh, and the trio of wild mushroom grilled pizza? Better than ever.)

                    1. re: finlero

                      For PVD, 5:30pm is not THAT early. And that mushroom pizza is swoon-worthy.

                  2. It seems likely that part of the reason for Stop & Shop's revamping, which includes more prepared-in-store meal components, is the expectation that people who don't cook will be forsaking restaurant dining in favor of buying ready-to-eat-at-home supermarket meals - a little bit cheaper.

                    1. I'm surprised by how little I've seemed to notice people cutting back with eating out. It seems like when my husband and I venture out for dinner the restaurants are always full. However, I do know that my husbands work has cut out all buisiness dinners the past 2 months and are canceling their Christmas party out. I also find that we are chosing less expensive restaurants, nothing with plates over $20, even though we used to frequent more expensive places fairly frequently. Recently, I can't justify paying $35 for a steak when I can make a whole beef loin at home for that cost. Also, I think prices need to start coming down - especially when you are looking at the North End where prices for pasta are over $20, when they used to be $12 less that 5 years ago. I think the last 5 years drove everything up over true value and things just need to readjust and people will again start eating out. According to my family in the suburbs places like Bertucci's and the 99 are packed every night - so midtier pricing is still attracting patrons.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: foodietrue

                        I agree that the mid-tier chain places are doing well due to perceived value for money. Applebees, etc., will do well during this time. A more chowish analog is the neighborhood places with comfort food -- Somerville's Highland Kitchen comes immediately to mind.

                        1. re: yumyum

                          I was shocked when a friend of mine told me that the average wait for a table for most Legal Seafood branches in the Boston area last Saturday night was 2 - 2/1/2 hours.

                          I'm hoping that some of this can spill over to the interesting small places in Quincy, East Boston, and Dorchester (if the City of Boston can be more agressive in sorting out the parking situation), and in the other regional neighborhoods.

                          I

                      2. The Elephant Walk recently announced a new menu with all entrees under $20. At the same time they've adjusted the balance of Cambodian vs. French options, and I can only assume it's an effort to simplify ingredients and lower food costs. I hope it works well for them! http://ewrg.typepad.com/elephantwalkt...

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: cambridgejen

                          Just thought I'd revisit this because of course the economy has gotten even worse since I first posted. I was at 2 places this past week and didn't seem to notice a decrease in the amount of customers, but I have been asking friends about their experiences and many have reported a further decline in the quality or the reduction of portion sizes at various places. On a good note though, in another recent post I have seen that places may be starting to come up w/ deals for folks (buy one appetizer get another free or things like that) which could account for keeping the places full or at least not dead. I have also noticed on tv a lot of ads for eating at home. I can't remember if it's Pepperidge Farms who is advertising appetizers you can make at home for your own happy hour and Target is doing a campaign on staying close to home due to the bad economy. Then you have KFC, Applebees and other chains doing the whole angle of "for the same price or less of eating at home you can eat here." Just interesting. I wonder if the "staying at home" angle will result in less traffic eventually happening at places or if many will jump on the bandwagon of "you can eat here and not kill your wallet). Has anyone noticed things going on in the Boston restaurant scene in the past couple of weeks?

                          1. re: BackBayGirl

                            What I've noticed is that nearly every restaurant I've been to over the past two or three weeks has been virtually empty, including some that are typically crowded. Scary to think how many places will close unless things start to get better soon...

                            1. re: hiddenboston

                              We don't usually go out to dinner during prime weekend hours, so I haven't had any data points to offer, but I was mildly surprised when our party of 4 had no trouble being seated immediately at Trattoria Toscana at 6:45 last night. We were there till about 8:15, and they stayed about 80% full during that time. It was Halloween, so maybe business was slow everywhere for a Friday night, but it did seem a bit off.

                              1. re: hiddenboston

                                We showed up (party of four) at Taberna de Haro this past Saturday around 7:30. The place was full when we arrived but we were seated within 15 minutes - normally I would have expected a much longer wait. So I guess their business is down a bit, but not so much as to leave any empty tables at prime time. And portion sizes have not changed since they opened.

                                1. re: BobB

                                  We were at Donohue's in Watertown on Friday night and it was absolutely empty. At one point, there were maybe 3 people in the back room (often you can't get a seat on a Friday night). As Allstonian says, maybe Halloween had something to do with places being empty on Friday, but it was a bit disturbing to see.

                                  I also went to Angela's in East Boston and the Colonial Restaurant in Plymouth over the weekend and both were more or less empty at peak dining times.

                                  1. re: hiddenboston

                                    We were at Angela's Saturday night and also noticed that they were not full.
                                    The guacamole wasn't as good as the last time either. On the other hand, the mole was great!

                          2. The high end places definitely slowing down! I had to make a same day reservation for last night the 29th. I went to Open Table and was very surprized by the fact that so many big named high end restaurants had prime time openings for 2 people.

                            Clio: 6:30 or 8:00
                            Hamersley's 6:30 or 7:30
                            #9 6:30 or 7:30
                            Pigalle 5:30 or 730
                            Troquet 5:30 or 8:00

                            This would not have been the case 6 months ago!

                            We ended up at #9 and we had an excellant meal!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: csammy

                              I used go to Oiishi Chestnut Hill 3x/wk (until recently) and noticed most of the rolls have shrunk quite a bit. Quality is the same but sashimi slices are cut noticeably smaller and thinner, the sweet shrimp are much smaller size, and I can no longer taste the eel yesterday because of its fishy smell and sliced so thin. The three experienced waitresses have recently left so service isn't as quick or as good.

                            2. We went to Hungry Mother for the 1st time on Friday night. We had 6:30 reservations. It was somewhat empty when we sat down but was busy by the time we left...approx. 8:30. Given it was Halloween night, we thought they wouldn't be very busy but it appears they are not hurting due to the economy at this point given the 80% table occupancy as we were walking out.

                              BTW, the menu/drinks/service lived up to the CH opinions. We will definitely be going back soon.

                              1. We walked around the South End on Sat night, Nov 1, on the early side --6:30ish --and it seemed like most places were jamming!! Granted, it's the south end, it's a saturday night, but it didn't seem to me like things were slower in the slightest.

                                1. I've noticed in the Quincy area some changes. The Jury Room changed their menu. Unfortunately not for the better. Cheaper ingredients, smaller portions. Blue 22 is deserted most evenings, will probably be out of business by the end of first quarter next year. These are very scary times.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: jjbourgeois

                                    That's too bad about the Jury Room. I had been looking forward to trying it, but never got around to it. Perhaps I'll hold off for now...

                                    1. re: jjbourgeois

                                      I was talking to the owner of Jury Room awhile back, and he said the numbers at lunch did not support them being open during the day, although I think they may still be open for lunch on Fridays. That's the reason the menu was consolidated. I was dissapointed that they took the ribs off the menu, because that was an item that they did quite well. I'll still go back for the flatbread pizzas.

                                      1. re: Pegmeister

                                        The flatbreads are gone. They now offer "Pizzas", but they didn't look as good as the flatbeads

                                        1. re: jjbourgeois

                                          Wow, I just checked out their menu on-line and there are really a lot of changes. The shepards pie pizza sounds like it might be interesting though.

                                    2. We tried to walk into 3 places in Hingham last weekend: Scarlet Oak, Tosca's and Square Cafe. All three were booked solid. I think most people are eating out one night a week.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: Richard Hurts

                                        Business is very brisk in South End restaurants on Fri-Sat as well; it's the other five nights that are swooning.

                                        1. re: MC Slim JB

                                          The only place I've been to in the past couple of months that was jam-packed was Tango in Arlington last weekend. Other than that, places have been pretty empty overall, though granted I haven't been in the South End or the North End on a weekend in a few months. I was in the North End last night and some of the restaurants I passed by were nearly empty at around 7:30 in the evening.

                                          1. re: MC Slim JB

                                            Toro was packed last night.

                                            But then, Toro is always packed.

                                            1. re: yumyum

                                              I do some event planning from time to time and the earlier poster was right, absolutely NO ONE is having Christmas parties this year, which I think will affect how many restaurants are still in business come the New Year, because many places depend on a strong December to help them finish out the year well.

                                              For my part, the comfort food type places seem to be maintaining portion sizes since that"s what they're known for. I think chains have an advantage here because they have to keep ingredients uniform so they are less likely to cut the quick corners smaller places would. I do think it is pushing certain places to offer more "perceived value" For example, I had scallops at the Beehive and previously there had been four scallops on the entree and now there are only three but the scallops were larger and of a better quality. Same sort of thing over at Douzo, better grade tuna in some things, larger sizes, but maybe fewer.

                                              I've had a much harder time getting into some financial district places for lunch, I have a theory that the expense account crowd can't spend as much so they are eating out earlier. I have had a harder time getting tables on Thursdays no matter what part of the city, but Fridays have been harder in neighborhood areas and Saturdays harder at places with the B&T crowd.

                                        2. Some discussion about whether bad restaurants can be propped up by media hype has been moved over to the Not About Food board here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/571654

                                          1. Those that cut corners might not be around. People are more understanding of food now, vs the 70's ( I hope). Smaller portions won't cut it either. All the funny money is gone, is down to brass tax now..lets see what happens. I hope the good ones stay around!!

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: F.F.C.

                                              I sure hope we are down to brass tacks, not brass tax!

                                              1. re: F.F.C.

                                                We went to the Oak Room last night to celebrate a birthday. In speaking with the one of the long time employees, he stated that business is down 20-30% since last year at this time. The place seemed busy enough but the Oak Bar was much more occupied than the dining room. I also think agree that Christmas parties and cutbacks on business expenses will implace high end places like this. 2009 may be a lot worse than people currently believe.