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Feeding the night owls

Late-night dining is the rage, so maybe it’s time to think about keeping the doors open a little longer.

Foodies in Washington D.C. have a hard time getting something decent to eat after 10 p.m., “when the sidewalks roll up for the night,” according to restaurateur Alan Popovsky. So when he opened Hudson last November, Popovsky immediately began serving an abbreviated version of the brasserie’s dinner menu (seafood sliders, red Thai curry steamed mussels and pasta Bolognese) until midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends. “Six weeks later, we were already getting a heavy late-night crowd from the surrounding hotels and residents,” he says.

Cities like New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles have always had their share of places that served into the wee hours. And there are diners, pizzerias and roadhouses across the country that stay open late or never close. But now trendy casual and fine-dining restaurants in smaller cities and even suburbs are offering dedicated late-night menus, keeping the kitchen open until midnight or beyond. Plus, big urban centers are gaining even more “clockless dining” concepts, as some trendwatchers call it. 

So, is it time to extend your hours? Your potential customer base can provide a clue. A Technomic survey found that males are twice as likely as females to eat out after 10 p.m. and over 60 percent of late-night diners are age 34 or younger. These numbers led Taco Bell to create a splashy “Fourth Meal” promotion last year, tying it into $500 meal vouchers for 50 up-and-coming rock bands. The tactic paid off—Taco Bell now claims the largest share of the quickservice late-night market, which accounts for 7 percent of the total $224 billion QSR segment, according to 2007 figures from NPD Crest.  “Over the last two years, there’s been a 3 to 5 percent increase in late-night traffic,” says Tom Miner, principal in the Chicago-based Technomic. “It’s a steady building of clientele and not just at the big chains.”

While quickservice may be driving the business, there’s a choosier group of night crawlers looking for more than fast food—and alcohol is part of their quest. In a gentrified area of Durham, North Carolina, where Watts Grocery opened last September, executive chef-owner Amy Tornquist introduced a concise afterdinner menu filled with “catchy but not fussy food—things I would like to eat late at night,” she says. So far, the young professionals, grad students and hipsters who stop by are scarfing down her deep-fried chicken gizzards and smelts, pastrami Reuben sandwich and other craveable fare, accompanied by a glass or two of wine. Desserts like black bottom pie and apple crisp are also available.

When it comes to late-night menus, less is often more. That’s what Todd Mitgang discovered when he opened Crave Ceviche Bar in New York City last August. His pared-down After Hours menu doesn’t require bringing in any new products; it includes a snack section featuring items like cocoa smoked popcorn, mini-burgers and shrimp ceviche, but the focus is cheese plates. “Cheese plays up our extensive wines-by-the-glass list,” Mitgang explains. “Plus, everything on the menu is simple enough to prep and set up by the cleanup staff member who stays after midnight anyway.”

Staffing is key to late-night profitability. You don’t want to pay employees overtime or keep extra staff on the payroll if the traffic won’t support them. At Simposio in Houston, one cook and the dishwasher can handle the lounge menu food—a mix of small “Eats” like bruschette, stuffed panzeroti pasta and grilled polenta with wild mushrooms; “Drinks,” including a Rose Tini and Italian Mojito, are left in the bartender’s hands. “We invented some new dishes and downsized others, but I think it’s important to have two menus—one for dinner and one for the lounge—to create the right ambiance and attract a younger crowd,” explains owner Gianpaolo Luti. Simposio’s new location on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares also helps bring in that crowd.

Marketing can be important, too. “Sometimes it’s a matter of teaching the demographic that something different has arrived,” claims Popovsky, who promotes Hudson’s late-night menu by reaching out to concierges, employees from other restaurants and late-working law firms. Home restaurant in San Francisco launched an “Open ’Til Midnight” campaign, complete with interactive Web site, www.home-sf.com. The witty graphic on the site’s flash page doubled as a print ad in a Bay Area magazine and newspaper, an exterior banner on the restaurant, a check presenter at the table and a tag on Internet restaurant sites Open Table and City Search. “We reinforced the new late hours on several levels and are seeing an aggregate sales bump of 5 to 10 percent, depending on the day of week,” says COO Michael Levine.

Sometimes late-night profitability requires a bit of tweaking. Brett Perloff, co-owner of Red Sky and Pearl in Philadelphia, is applying lessons he learned at the former to the latter. Flexibility tops his list. Pearl has a lounge area upstairs with a DJ, high-profit bottle service and a limited menu of raw bar selections and chocolate tastings; the fine-dining restaurant downstairs has its own Asian-fusion menu with over 30 items. “We purposely set up two separate spaces so the noise from the lounge wouldn’t bother dinner guests, but we can quickly change the lighting, music and seating arrangement to convert the downstairs into another lounge if the market demands it,” Perloff explains. “On the other hand, if there is significant revenue to be made after 11 p.m. with a full menu, we’ll take advantage of that. It can be a night by night decision.”

On the other hand, Mas (farmhouse) in New York City’s West Village was operating very profitably from 11:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. for over three years, but recently abandoned its late-night menu to focus on its strengths as a fine-dining destination. “I felt like I was running a Jekyll and Hyde restaurant,” says chef-owner Galen Zamarra. “I decided I’d rather focus on doing just dinner and doing it very well.” His market-driven cuisine and detailed tasting menus attract an upscale, appreciative customer and he no longer has to worry about finding waiters and managers who can stay until 4 a.m. and “deal with the more raucous crowds.”

And how does Zamarra make up for lost late-night revenue? “I now cook dinner on Sundays too.”    

Menu Sampler  

Late-night menus have everything from inspired breakfast items to sophisticated small plates.

El Gaucho, Portland, Oregon
Dungeness Crab Cake Benedict with creole bernaise ($20)

Stanton Social, New York 

Red Snapper Tacos, creamy avocado & spicy mango ($9)

Rocca Kitchen & Bar, Boston

White Clam and Pancetta Pizzetta ($8)

Avec, Chicago
Daily Selection Salumi to share ($15)

Stack, Las Vegas
Adult Tater Tots with bacon and brie ($10)

Marathon Grill, Philadelphia
Truffled Mac + Cheese ($9.95)

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