In Recession, Good News for Diners

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Photo by Enzo Algarme & Anastasiya Laufenberg

Word came this week that Mark Slater, renowned sommelier at Citronelle, one of Washington, DC's most expensive, and acclaimed, restaurants, is leaving to become Director of Wine Services at Michael Landrum's restaurant empire, which now includes Ray's The Steaks, Ray's The Classics, and Ray's Hell Burgers (the best burger in DC), and will soon feature fish at Ray's The Catch.

This strikes me as big news. What would be the proper analogy here? It's kinda like The Edge from U2 just joined The White Stripes. Or maybe Steve Jobs leaving Apple to go develop next-gen products for a tech start-up in Mumbai.

Consider this: dinner at Citronelle is $190 for the tasting menu, $280 with wine pairing. (I went once, on someone else's dime, and still felt cheated.)

At Ray's, the steaks (gigantic, delicious, and beautifully seared) are all around thirty dollars, and you get free sides like creamed spinach, garlic mashed potatoes, spiced cashews, focaccia, and, at the end of the meal, a small taste of chocolate (tiger butter fudge in the summer; Ghiradelli hot chocolate in the winter). The wine lists boasts several great choices in the $40 range, including one of my favorite steak wines, The Grappler.

Are we looking at a future with more bistro-esque street carts, hidden restaurants, and bargain gastronomy?

Beyond that, Landrum keeps a board of steak specials at Ray's, each item under twenty dollars, some even $15 or $16, and the dishes include those same sides. Every Sunday, Landrum hosts a charity dinner, where you get a three-course steak dinner (soup or salad, steak, and dessert) starting at $25, with ten of those dollars going to charities that benefit "under-served communities."

The two aren't in direct competition, but where would you rather be dining in a recession? Can you even imagine spending over $200 per person for a dinner out in the next few years?

Landrum appreciates this. And I like to think Argentinian restaurants do as well. Like Ray's, one of our immediate favorites here, Las Cholas, brings in crowds every day of the week (even during lunch, as you can see from the photo below). Certainly, the steak at Las Cholas tastes wonderful, but part of the reason for that is that with each bite you remember it is only setting you back five bucks.

And restaurants in both North and South America are saving rent by moving out of their traditional settings. In the Mission District of San Francisco, Mission Street Food is shaking things up with an entirely new, even irreverent, approach to fine dining on the cheap: a developing chef decides to open his own place, but instead of high overheads and needy investors he rents out a taco truck on weekends to prepare and serve his cuisine. It's a smash, so now the idea has moved to renting out a Chinese restaurant every Thursday and Saturday, hosting guest chefs and creating dishes like "Pudding Pork: Pork slow-cooked in milk with nutmeg, brown sugar, and bay leaves from Golden Gate Park" and pricing nearly all of them under ten dollars. Wait times are usually two hours, and Mission Street Food donates the profits to charity.

Outside Washington, D.C, down the road from Ray's, a young couple had dreams of opening a Neopolitan pizza place just like the ones in Napoli. But finding a space and investors was too difficult. So they came up with the Pupatella Pizza Cart, a fire-engine-red metal box concealing a powerhouse 650-degree pizza oven. The two are now serving lunches (and dealing with long lines) every day. I have done the legwork, as have others, and I feel that I am on solid ground when I say that it is one of the best pizzas in town.

And there are yet other ways to save rent. Here in Buenos Aires, as well as in many other parts of the world, chefs are opting to open restaurants in their homes for a few nights a week instead of going through the hassle of running a full-time operation (I'll be posting much more on the "closed door" hidden restaurants of Buenos Aires in the future). These hidden restaurants have menus built on similar structures and styles as that of Citronelle and other fine dining establishments, but at a fraction of the cost, and with a much greater level of intimacy between the diner and the kitchen.

It's much to digest. Need haute cuisine be expensive? Need it even be served in a restaurant? It appears not. So are we looking at a future with more bistro-esque street carts, hidden restaurants, and bargain gastronomy? Will restaurant critics' best-of lists need to include a place that doesn't even have a listed address? And could you end up having the best meal of your life in some dude's living room, with mismatched silverware and uneven tables? From what I've seen so far, the answer is yes.

Presented by

Terrence Henry

Terrence Henry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. More

Terrence Henry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. In January 2009, he and his wife embarked on a food tour of Argentina, Spain, Italy, England, Canada, and the United States. Some 13 months later he settled in Austin, where he is now learning the art of Texas barbecue and writing about food and film.

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