NEW YORK (
) -- Are Gordon Ramsay and other restaurateurs facing their own worst kitchen nightmares?
With consumers spending less on dining out and expecting greater value for the money during the deepest recession in 80 years, the elitist foodie culture is heading toward a slow death. In high-end restaurants all over the country and especially in New York, restaurant owners and chefs find themselves rethinking expensive, exotic ingredients and retooling menu options. It's either that or shutter, in an industry that's based on volume rather than fat profit margins.
High-grade cuts of meat are becoming a thing of the past in foodie circles.
Expensive ingredients like caviar and gold flakes are out, as Gordon Ramsay knows. He's recently instructed the chefs at his 20 restaurants worldwide to replace more costly cuts of meat with lesser ones, and has forbidden the use of out-of-season ingredients, which are pricier. In New York's Financial District last year, the Wall Street Burger Shoppe introduced the Richard Nouveau burger -- 10 ounces of 100% Kobe beef, topped with real gold flakes, black truffles, seared foie gras and aged Gruyere cheese. The price? $175. Is anyone actually buying an over-the-top burger smothered with exotic toppings?
The signs point to "no." There's New York's fascination with the everyday foods that fit any budget: Tacos, Belgian waffles, pizza, dumplings and Middle Eastern specialties have become virtual fetishes, creating a cult of foodies eating and blogging their way around the five boroughs, averaging $5 for a whole meal. Instead of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant and worrying about paying the rent, entrepreneurs like CupcakeStop's Lev Ekster and Cravings's Thomas Yang are hitting the city streets and making a living selling baked goods and Taiwanese specialties.
In New York, many of the city's acclaimed restaurants -- Le Cirque, Del Posto and the "21" Club -- participated in this year's Summer Restaurant Week, which offers diners three-course meals for $24 at lunch and $35 at dinner. While Restaurant Week has often been regarded by restaurant owners and waitstaff as a nuisance, bringing in less affluent diners and some say stingier tippers, this year's promotion has been extended all the way through Labor Day, drawing customers during August, typically one of the slowest months.
While some restaurants have swallowed their pride and taken part in marketing programs like Restaurant Week, others have devised their own ways to become more accessible to diners. Earlier this year, Tom Colicchio, chef and co-owner of the Craft family of restaurants, rolled out Halfsteak at his New York steakhouse, Craftsteak. Offering smaller portions of signature entrees at bargain prices, like the bone-in New York strip steak for $14.50, lures after-work crowds to the bar area at the front of the restaurant. Per Se, Thomas Keller's New York sister to his wine-country flagship French Laundry, recently unveiled the Salon Menu. Famous for its 11-course $275 tasting menu, featuring ingredients like white sturgeon caviar and Hudson Valley duck foie gras, Per Se now offers a la carte dishes in the $14 to $40 range in its bar.
Although there may be signs the economy's getting better, the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Performance Index, a monthly composite tracking the health of the industry, was 97.8 in June, marking the 20th consecutive month below 100. (Anything less than 100 suggests contraction.) With numbers like these, it's clear consumers are spending less on dining out. And when they're out, they're more likely to be eating falafel than blowing an entire week's food budget on one hamburger.