THE party’s been over for months and months in South Florida and Southern California, but restaurants there are just now starting to feel the hangover.
In Miami, where the housing bubble bloated most freely and burst most quickly, the effects of the downturn have emerged slowly and unevenly.
“It’s just the last couple of months,” Michelle Bernstein, one of the best-known chefs in Miami Beach said last week as she stood near a few empty seats at the bar of her restaurant, Michy’s. “It’s been scary.”
Even restaurants that say they’re doing fine, in Miami and elsewhere in the country, can no longer afford to play hard to get.
They’ve started taking reservations and adding value menus with phrases that evoke the Depression. And many restaurants say more customers are sharing appetizers, buying cheaper wine, ordering less wine and fewer courses, or just not showing up as much.
Where the economy has struggled longest, restaurants have been hit hardest.
In southern California, restaurateurs interviewed over the past week said business had dropped by as much as 20 percent from the same time last year.
Javier Gonzalez, who opened Costa Brava, a Spanish restaurant in suburban San Diego, seven years ago, said business had been growing by 20 percent a year, but is down 10 percent this year.
“I think what’s been the most affected by the economy is the festive atmosphere in the restaurant,” he said. “Besides people ordering two glasses of wine instead of a bottle, there just isn’t the same buzz.”
“Birthdays and other parties don’t seem as exuberant,” he added. “In the long run, it’s very scary to think what will happen after Christmas and the New Year.”
Bernard Guillas, executive chef at the Marine Room Restaurant in the wealthy San Diego enclave of La Jolla, said he’s still doing a roaring trade, echoing what other high-end restaurants have reported. But he has also begun to offer a $40 prix fixe menu and the 67-year-old restaurant’s first happy hour.
“You just need to be flexible and to realize that people are on more of a budget,” he said. “You have to keep up your attention to detail because a tired restaurant will drive customers away, especially now.”
That sort of flexibility has so far helped independent restaurants avoid the problems of full-service chains, some of which have gone bankrupt and most of which have seen sales fall. (Fast food restaurants like Burger King, and fast casual restaurants like Chipotle have done better.)
Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, an industry consulting group, said independents are better able to adapt.
“They can change their menus more quickly, add specials,” he said. “Can you imagine what it takes for a chain like Applebee’s to introduce a new item?”
But John Owens, senior equity analyst specializing in restaurants for Morningstar, said that in many cities, big chains may eventually win out. They can afford to advertise more than small restaurants and negotiate better deals with suppliers and get better locations.
“Independents can be nimble and know their clientele,” Mr. Owens said. “Some will be able to compete and do well, but not all of them.
“We’re going to see a lot of independent restaurants shut their doors.”
New York restaurants have avoided the hard times so far, but may be feeling the effects soon.
“New York has probably been the last bastion of stability,” Mr. Goldin said, “but I’m expecting it will change pretty rapidly.” Following are reports on the restaurant scene around the country.
In a city where nipping and tucking is usually done by plastic surgeons, restaurants are coping with a brutal downturn, suffering the effects of both a recession in the regional economy and a strike by screenwriters that brought movie and television production to a halt.
Restaurants that formerly banned customers from modifying menu items are playing a bit nicer and creating specials: the “Hard Times Happy Hour” just arrived at Lola’s in West Hollywood.