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The Restaurant Biz is getting hit hard!

Restaurants Stop Playing Hard to

 Get

Photo Illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

HUNGRY MEN From left: Mario Batali of Del Posto, Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque and Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Perry St., Nougatine and Matsugen really really want you to visit.

By Frank Bruni-
Published: February 3, 2009

HAS a restaurant hugged you lately?

Diner's Journal

A blog by Frank Bruni and other Dining section writers on restaurants and food.

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Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

COME HITHER Craft offers special menus on Fridays and Tuesdays.

Readers' Comments

How has your experience in restaurants changed as the economy has slowed?

Has it insisted that you can have it more cheaply than you thought possible and whenever you want, not just at 5:45 p.m., when your desire isn’t close to peaking, or at 9:30, when you almost can’t be bothered anymore?

Has it dropped its usual guard? Surrendered its typical reserve?

I’m betting that the answer is “yes” — and that if you eat out regularly in New York, you’ve noticed a different reception, an altered mood: extreme solicitousness tinged with outright desperation.

Battered hard already by the recession and petrified of what’s to come, restaurants are talking sweet and reaching out in ways they didn’t six or even three months ago. They’re cutting special deals, adding little perks, relaxing demands and making an extra effort to be accessible.

They’ve seldom wanted you so bad, so they’ve rarely treated you so good. If you can still afford to dine out, you’re likely finding yourself enfolded in what the restaurateur Stephen Hanson— who recently closed two Manhattan restaurants, including Fiamma — describes as a big, tight embrace.

Predicting that “the consumer will just shut down” and that 2009 would be “a very, very tough year,” Mr. Hanson told peers at a conference in Manhattan last month, “You need to hug the customer.”

Trust me: the hugging had already begun.

I was feeling it regularly in restaurants where I was certain I hadn’t been recognized as a critic and where the “hello” from the host station sounded more like a “thank God.” I was feeling it on the telephone, as reservationists who couldn’t accommodate me one night veritably pleaded that I book another, or beseeched me for a callback number just in case a table suddenly opened.

And I wasn’t the only one.

Joan Rappoport, a Manhattan event planner who lives in the West Village and eats out regularly, said that she sensed a climatic shift as early as six months ago.

“The attitude that a number of places used to have, they don’t have that anymore,” Ms. Rappoport said, her tone of voice communicating equal measures bewilderment and relief. “That attitude of ‘we’re doing you a favor,’ that frosty condescending attitude — I don’t find that anymore. And I’ve experienced that change over and over again.”

Servers, she said, make double- and triple-sure that her table has everything it needs. Managers circle back to the table more often than ever to ask, with new urgency, if everything’s O.K.

They have the time. Fewer restaurants are filling up every night and more tables are going empty. According to Technomic, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm, fine-dining revenues could fall by 12 to 15 percent in 2009.

That may not sound cataclysmic, but restaurateurs say that for many restaurants, it is the difference between making and losing money.

“People need to understand how tight the margins are in the restaurant business,” said Alfred Portale, the chef and one of the owners of Gotham Bar and Grill, which opened 25 years ago.

Mr. Portale said that Gotham’s revenues are down by about 15 percent from a year ago, adding, “This is the toughest January I’ve ever seen.”

I asked if the restaurant was still eking out a profit. After hesitating for several seconds, he said, in a staggered cluster of short sentences: “I hope so. Yes. We will. A small one.”

Fabio Trabocchi, the chef at Fiamma, sounded even more dire in a recent telephone conversation, saying that some restaurants with prices as steep and standards as high as Fiamma’s and Gotham’s were seeing declines of up to 40 percent.

You get an immediate sense of that when hunting for reservations. While getting into a select cadre of perpetually mobbed restaurants can be as hellish and humbling as ever, getting into others isn’t nearly as tough as it once was.

Have you seen these yet?

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