RESTAURANTS ADJUST FOR LEANER TIMES Recession changes atmosphere, menus


At W. Brokke's restaurant at the Inner Harbor, the pale pink tableclothes have been replaced with dark green ones, the sugar now rests in black ceramic dishes instead of fine crystal bowls and there are ketchup bottles on the tables.

These are big changes for Brokke's, which has served seafood, soups and salads in a distinctly posh setting for more than 10 years at Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion.

The menu has also gotten some less pricey additions: an array of appetizers in the $3 range, pasta dishes and barbecued chicken.

"People are feeling that when they go out to eat they don't want something fancy but something casual," said Wayne Brokke, the owner. "If you can't afford the filet mignon -- try the hamburger."

The recession has forced a lot of restaurateurs to re-evaluate the way they do business. Expensive eateries, in particular, have begun implementing a wave of changes geared at bringing tight-fisted customers in the door.

An informal survey of Maryland restaurants found that "prix fixe menus" -- fixing the prices on selected dinners on set nights -- is the most popular strategy for wooing customers.

Those who couldn't afford the Conservatory at Peabody Court Hotel in good economic times may be able to take advantage of its prix fixe three-course dinner special for $32.00. Maybe.

"Restaurants have responded to the downturn by looking at their

price structure, changing their menus and offering incentives for people to come through the door," said Marcia Harris, executive director of the Maryland Restaurant Association.

Unlike many retailers, however, restaurants in the area have not been marking down pre-existing items on their menu. Instead, eateries are adding less expensive dishes to the selection and thinking up buying incentives.

Churchill's on Liberty Street has begun a "Frequent Diners Club." For every dollar spent a customer gets a point. When 500 points are accumulated, a customer receives a $25 gift certificate for food there.

The venerable Pimlico Restaurant in Pikesville added a "Pimlico Lite" restaurant in its lounge earlier this week. The Lite portion of the restaurant is more casual and serves light fare at low prices compared with its more expensive flagship side.

"If they want to go out and eat, I still want to have them in my restaurant," said Charles Levine, the restaurant's managing director.

In February, Aldo's, a restaurant in Fallston that specializes in veal, pasta and seafood, started serving pasta dishes to adults on Tuesday,Wednesday and Thursday at the children's menu price of $5.50.

Aldo's manager, Gina Vitale, said the restaurant will start featuring "Rollback Days," where customers get to order from menus that are 2 and 3 years old and pay the prices listed then.

Many restaurant owners said that although business is slow all around, they have seen the most dramatic drop in business lunchers and that weekend business is still fairly robust.

"I don't know where those business diners are," said Mr. Brokke. His restaurant has started luncheon specials in the $5 range to attract them.

All these repositioning efforts have Stephen Nace, manager of the Baugher's Restaurant and Food Market in Westminster, laughing. The average dinner at the restaurant routinely has been $4.95, and that includes rolls, butter, a beverage, two vegetables and an entree, Mr. Nace said.

"Last year, we did 28,000 more meals than the year before. That was a record. This year, we're on the same pace, and our weekend business has really boomed," he said. "If more people had been like us before, they wouldn't be hurting."

Some restaurateurs think that the downturn in the business has more to do with unemployment, consumer debt and income levels than the Persian Gulf war, although they say the conflict also did its part in keeping people from eating out.

With the war's end, they are hoping there will be a pickup in business, but they aren't banking on it.

"They are cautiously optimistic," noted Ms. Harris of the local restaurant association.

"I don't think anyone is going to throw up their hands and cry victory in the war against recession just yet."

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