Restaurants See Signs of Spring

(March 30, 2010 - Wall Street Journal)—Shoots of optimism are emerging in the high-end restaurant world. Expense-account spending is trickling back and consumers are starting to shell out for luxuries again. Prices for some specialty ingredients have come down. And good weather conditions in many parts of the country are making for the best crop in years of wild mushrooms, strawberries and asparagus.

The combination is cheering restaurateurs, who are rolling out festive baby-lamb roasts, multicourse shad dinners and dishes laden with wild mushrooms to celebrate the season. For chefs, it's a welcome change from last spring, when many restaurants weathered the worst of the economic storm by promoting discounts, comfort food, cheaper drinks and bar snacks.

"Last year we were in freefall at this time of year. Now we're in recovery," says Daniel Scherotter, chef and owner of Palio d'Asti, in San Francisco's financial district. Last March, when the Dow hovered around 7000, Mr. Scherotter says he saw a dramatic drop in customer count and spending. Today, sales are up 30%, with more orders for veal, baby lamb and high-end wine, Mr. Scherotter says.

Like the economic recovery overall, the restaurant rebound is spotty and uncertain. The Austin, Texas, restaurant Olivia says sales are up 25% over the first quarter last year; Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C., is up 2% and Savoy in New York is up 15%. Many restaurants say their stronger first quarters this year are back to 2008 sales levels. High-end chains, a category consisting mainly of upscale steakhouses, saw a 17% sales decline in 2009, according to Technomic, a Chicago restaurant consultant, and will probably see a 1% to 3% decline this year, mostly because discounting cuts into sales although traffic is up. Restaurateurs and analysts say that more people are visiting high-end restaurants, though they are spending conservatively.

Read more (with seasonal recipes) at:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703312504575141650898576796.html?mod=WSJ_Books_Food


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