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Jan 30, 2009 04:05 AM

Effects of Recession on Dining Out?

I'm curious as to thoughts and observations about the effects of the current economic recession on the restaurant scene in the Chicago area.

I haven't observed an unusually high number of restaurant closings yet. Of course, it's difficult to discern the impact of the recession in an industry where restaurants are constantly opening and closing and where places that stay in business for many years are largely the exception rather than the rule, even in good times. But I keep expecting a flood of closing announcements, and it hasn't materialized as of yet.

However, in reading columns like in the Tribune (and its Metromix online companion) and the Dish column of Chicago Magazine, I have observed a significant slowing in plans to open a number of restaurants. Some places are still opening, but especially with more elaborate and expensive undertakings, lots of restaurant projects seem to be reported as on hold.

Special deals seem to be proliferating. This is the second year that Chicago is celebrating Restaurant Week (see ) and Opentable recently held its new, similar "Appetite Stimulus Plan" (see ). The timing could not be better. Similar deals are popping up independently on the part of many restaurants, especially ones which attract diners on nights other than Saturday, as noted in Phil Vettel's new column at There's a huge concentration of "where the deals are" columns in the media; sometimes it seems like that's almost all that's being written.

Some restaurants are revamping their entire menu, with lower everyday prices. Sweets and Savories has a new menu in which the entrees are in the teens, rather than the twenties that formerly prevailed. one sixtyblue's new menu has entrees in the low twenties, rather than the low thirties previously, although one would leave open the possibility that their recent change in executive chef could be as responsible for their new direction as the economy. Just this week, when dining at Oceanique in Evanston, I saw them post a sign noting that they were extending their Wednesday lobster entree deal ($20 instead of the usual $36), which was originally only for January, through the end of March.

As in many other sectors of the economy, value seems to be what everyone is yearning for. Places that provide a good value continue to do well - not only in the "cheap eats" part of the business, but also nicer places whose prices compare favorably to competitors, regardless of whether or not they're part of specific deals. La Sardine is still packed on Tuesdays for their $25 three-course deal. Michael in Winnetka continues to do a solid business.

I'd love to hear additional thoughts and observations regarding the direction of Chicagoland dining in light of the economic recession.

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  1. I'd love to hear comments by restaurateurs and others in the biz . Experience tells me some aren't going to want to talk too much too much about business falling off, assuming it is. Kind of a hard time to draw conclusions from, too. January is an awful month anyway and the sense of panic is fairly fresh.

    From the customer's side and as someone who has been affected by the downturn, I can tell you I'm not giving up dining out, but am absolutely giving up doing it out of laziness, as a substitute for cooking. Also, if I go out it's going to be to one of my local independents, both out of preference and to throw support their way.

    1. I live in Algonquin and quite a few local restaurants have closed recently. Of course, Randall Road has become chain restaurant row and there is a lot of competition, so I guess it's become survival of the fittest in this economy.

      A friend of mine is a district manager for a national restaurant chain that shall remain nameless. Normally profitable and popular, they are really suffering in this economy! As a result, they, too, are offering special deals to lure diners.

      Personally, I can tell you that my family and I have not given up on dining out, but we certainly have been dining out less often and have been more choosy about where we're dining.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Scylla

        No one else has any comments about this?

        1. re: Scylla

          I guess not!

          Incidentally, some restaurants (independents as well as chains) have recently been sending some amazing offers to people on their e-mail mailing lists. If there are restaurants you frequent (or would like to visit, if a deal is available), I recommend getting on their mailing list if there is one. Often the restaurant's website shows how to get on their list. In other cases I believe I've gotten on some lists by making reservations on and saying yes to the question, "Would you like to receive special event emails from this restaurant?"

          1. re: nsxtasy

            I have signed up for email alerts and have gotten free meals, appetizersand desserts. One chain gave me $15 off my bill. Son and I went for lunch. TWo sandwiches, soup and sodas for $7!

      2. It's pretty easy to see that things are slowing down. I just looked on Open Table and you can get a prime-time table at several of the high end restaurants for tomorrow if you want. (Avenues, Everest, Trotters, L2O, North Pond, ...) A year ago you generally could not get in on one day's notice except early or late if at all. I've walked into a couple of pretty good restaurants that were half empty during the week. Weekends they seem to be doing pretty well, but their revenues must be down significantly overall. The closings will come. Many are just burning up their capital right now.

        NYT and others have had some articles like Declines of up to 40% at high-end spots. I can't believe it is all that different here.

        Are Chowhound postings down?

        1. I've been out twice in the past week, to Avec and Cafe Iberico, and both places were packed to the gills. Of course, they're both fairly cheap. I walked by Blackbird and it was empty.

          I was in Wicker Park on Sat. evening, around 7, and the restaurants I walked by seemed to be doing well.

          My gut feeling is that people will support their favorites but they won't be trying new places. Price sensitivity is going to keep increasing.