In the restaurant industry, where the median profit margin is between four and six percent, being agile is what it takes to survive even in the best of economic times. Deborah Dowdell, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association (NJRA), puts the net profit even lower: one to three percent. We are clearly not experiencing the best of economic times, and fine-dining restaurants, in particular, have been hit hard. Earlier this year Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm, estimated that revenues in that category could fall by 12 to 15 percent nationally this year. That estimate now appears rosy.

Many Route 1 area restaurateurs report at least a 10 percent drop in recent months and are responding with a variety of tactics to “put butts in seats,” as Betsy Alger, proprietor of the Frog & the Peach in New Brunswick and former chairwoman of the NJRA puts it. Strategies include streamlining menus — presenting fewer entrees, for example, or more value-conscious ones; offering fixed-price, multi-course menus — sometimes for the first time in a restaurant’s history; featuring midweek specials (weekend dining seems to be holding its own); offering a small plates menu and/or smaller portions of full entrees; adding so-called comfort foods to fine-dining lineups; and waiving corkage fees for patrons who bring wines to restaurants with liquor licenses. In both Princeton and New Brunswick, restaurants are also banding together to form alliances and co-operatives to weather the storm and emerge intact. Salt Creek Grille in Forrestal Village is even picking up the dinner and drinks tab at random for one lucky table each night.

The beneficiary of these changes is the dining-out public. Of course, dining out is considered a luxury, not a necessity, and the media is rife with pundits exhorting people to give up restaurants — everyone from personal finance guru Suze Orman, who advises her followers not to dine out at a restaurant for one whole month, to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who chastised young professionals for not cooking at home. In my recent discussions with area restaurateurs, they offered compelling rebuttals as to why such advice is shortsighted and will hurt all of us in the end.

On her blog, Betsy Alger writes, “I wish the media would stop telling people that a great way to manage in a turned down economy is ‘don’t go out to eat, color your own hair, cancel your gym membership.’ Small businesses are neighborhood businesses. They hire people from the community. They give back to the community, sponsoring Little League teams, donating food for the hungry or for a church or historic foundation to raise money for a renovation, issuing gift certificates for local charities, sending a speaker to a high school career day.”

In 2008 New Jersey’s 23,000 restaurants comprised the state’s largest private sector employer, points out Jimmy Thornton, who was recently elected chairman of the NJRA. Latest statistics show that the restaurant and foodservice sector employs 311,000 statewide (that’s 7.6 percent of total employment) and generates $12 billion annually — adding substantially to tax revenues. Historically, one in three American adults got their first job in a restaurant.

Which is why it is painful for restaurateurs like John Marshall of Main Street Bistro in Princeton Shopping Center and Main Street Eatery & Bakery in Kingston to report, “we may have lost some positions through attrition that we haven’t refilled. A lot of our student employees count on these jobs for tuition and gas, and many of our employees live check to check.” Marshall says it is difficult for him to assess how much business is off, since “the first quarter is always quiet.” Like many of his colleagues, he reports that the weekend remains a popular dining-out time. “And for us,” he says, “lunch remains strong. If anything, it’s evenings midweek that might be a bit off.” He also points out that in its long history, Main Street Bistro has always positioned itself as mindful of budget constraints, including having always featured a rotating list of “best buy” wines.

Another Princeton restaurant veteran, Jack Morrison, owner of Blue Point Grill and Witherspoon Grill as well as Nassau Street Seafood market, has weathered at least two or three down times. “I opened during the recession of ’82 — which they’re comparing this to — plus we survived the ’89-’90 and 2000 recessions. We’re still here! Sure, we’re watching our payroll and our food costs and adjusting our prices,” he says. Like almost everyone I spoke with, Morrison first noticed a precipitous drop last fall. “October and November is when it occurred. But January and February have been O.K.; we’re O.K. here. We noticed during the holidays that lunch at Witherspoon was explosive.” It provided, he says, a less expensive way for companies to celebrate the season.

Other patterns he and his staff have noticed include patrons “trading down” in the name of value. At Witherspoon, the burgers are “selling off the charts”, and sales of beer are up, as they are for the “20-under-$30” wine list.

At the Blue Point Grill, it is a little different, Morrison acknowledges, because seafood is “a tough commodity” to cut corners on. But he and manager Steve Murray have been featuring what he calls “fish that are not as glamorous” as, say, Chilean sea bass or halibut: Cape Ann scrod, skate, and Canadian lake trout, for example. These, he says, are selling well. Starting last fall at both restaurants, he says, “we noticed that tabs were coming in with a lot of ‘splits,’ so we’re leaning towards the small plate idea — you know, a couple going for two or three appetizers and sharing a salad.” Yet, Morrison concludes, “people are still eating out. One thing to remember is that the one bit of life in the current economy is the food industry.”

It is a fact that people continue to enjoy dining out. Last year, even when gasoline prices were at their peak, fully 67 percent of diners who responded to the annual online survey by the Zagat Group reported that gas prices were not affecting where they chose to dine. Up until the most recent downturns, 48 percent of the American food dollar was spent dining out or taking out. As of February, though, 66 percent of respondents to the latest Zagat poll report that they are making the very same changes that Route 1 restaurants are seeing: they are eating out less, ordering less expensive menu items, eating at less expensive restaurants, and cutting back on alcohol, appetizers, and desserts.

Eateries in the greater Princeton area report that regulars are still coming, but perhaps with less frequency. Fred Strackhouse of the Stockton Inn says, “My customers have been unbelievably loyal. In general, people are trying to scale back, but if they can find great value, they’ll pick it up again. The thing is, so many people just don’t want to stay home. So instead of three or four courses, we’re seeing them share an appetizer, or share a salad and get two appetizers in place of entrees.”

This same observation has led to changes at Mediterra in Princeton. When the restaurant closed to make minor renovations for a few weeks earlier this year, owners Raoul and Carlo Momo took the opportunity to revamp the menu as well as the bar area. “We understand that given the state of the economy people are being very conscious of how they spend their money,” says Raoul Momo in a press statement, “and we want to make sure our guests have even more options for their dining experience.” Mediterra added a taverna-style menu, available throughout the restaurant, as well as more tapas to “accommodate a `’ighter’ night out.”

Laurent Chapuis, proprietor of the Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop, just doors away from Mediterra, applauds such changes. “I am personally happy to see a return to basics,” says the French native. “Brasseries and trattorias with good food will thrive — but ‘good’ is the pivotal word. I applaud Mediterra’s change in menu. I will spring for $20 to get paella, braised lamb shank, cassoulet. If I’m going out to eat, I’m going to be more picky.” He is quick to point out the distinction between good bistro fare and so-called comfort foods. “I don’t think something like meatloaf will work. That’s a perfect home food — for making and eating at home.”

Chapuis says that BYOs — especially chef-owned BYOs — are faring better in the current climate. “There is no doubt that restaurant wine programs are being hurt,” he concedes. As for sales at his own shop, “The numbers of bottles people are buying is fine, but the dollars they’re spending are less on average. I have been selling $7 to $20 wines forever, and my customers are still buying them. If anything, people who used to go elsewhere for higher priced wines are now coming here because they know they can get good wines in this category. If I have a problem, it’s with the big chains in malls. I do not understand why people go to malls when they have local businesses.” He hopes and expects that, in the end, this “sorting out” may be beneficial.

‘Perhaps this is what we need in Princeton. It can be the basis for a renewal. New businesses coming in might offer a better product. In the long run, customers will get better food, restaurants will have better staff and better prices or at minimum more realistic prices.”

Gabrielle Carbone and Matt Errico, owners of the downtown ice cream shop, the Bent Spoon, share that view. Says Carbone, “We have an interesting perspective because we’re serving restaurants, the university, and regular customers. Definitely, customers have a sense of something unusual happening — that people are struggling. They seem confused and worried, but also so hopeful and excited about the next big thing.” She says a number of customers in the financial and pharmaceutical industries have asked her about her training at the French Culinary Institute because they are considering entering the culinary field.

“Our own sales have stayed pretty steady,” she continues. “Of course, winter is our usual slow time so if we are to feel an impact, it will start in spring. January sales were down, but then they jumped up in February. If anything, we had a harder time when gasoline prices were at their highest and our suppliers were forced to add on a fuel surcharge. But that is gone and our costs are down again.” The Bent Spoon is working with client restaurants to come up with creative ideas for keeping business steady, including developing special flavors of ice cream to coordinate with, say, a wine dinner tasting menu featuring value-priced wines.

‘Our local restaurants and the food world in general are among the most creative groups when hard times hit home,” Carbone says. She cites the effort last holiday season called PRESTAH — Princeton Restaurants Against Hunger — when a dozen eateries banded together to support local hunger relief agencies. “We asked ourselves, how can we be creative, make this fun, and still give back even during these hard times,” she says. “I really love that that is the spirit of our community and, in fact, a reflection of the American spirit.”

Betsy Alger reports that in New Brunswick a group of 17 restaurants and entertainment venues have likewise banded together (“for the greater good”) to form a marketing/advertising co-operative aimed at keeping people coming into the downtown.

Another urban downtown area that has been hard hit is Trenton. Henry Mendez, an owner of the popular Italian restaurant Settimo Cielo depends on state and corporate workers in the immediate area. “Business has definitely slowed down,” he says. “We’re still getting the lunchtime business, but things have changed.” Dinner trade was always secondary, but now even that has waned: “Regulars who had been coming once a week are now coming every other week.” His tactics for dealing with this? “We’ve advertised a little more and we have pointedly kept our prices the same since we opened in 2007.” In fact, those prices have always been a bargain: 13 of 15 large-portioned entrees are under $20 at Settimo Cielo, with pasta and chicken dishes averaging only $15.50.

Like Mendez, Jim Weaver of Tre Piani and Tre Bar in Forrestal Village has depended on the kindness of corporate business. “I knew something was afoot right about Labor Day. I had been having a great year through August. September is when the corporate holiday parties start to get booked. That slacked off and I said, uh-oh. Even firms that are going O.K. decided not to have a holiday party because it doesn’t look good or seem right. So in December, instead of gearing up for the holidays, I started laying off.”

Lately, though, Weaver says he is sensing “a little more energy” at the restaurant. He has streamlined the Tre Piani menu, adding more affordable choices, and has installed a “kind of recession menu” at lunch at Tre Bar. Weaver has diversified into corporate catering, having been tapped for the concession at the nearby Novo Nordisk corporate cafe for breakfast and lunch, and this, he says, helps cash flow. For his restaurants he deals with as many local purveyors as possible, but for the concession he uses larger suppliers from the major metropolitan areas. “Overall the Princeton area has been somewhat insulated from the big national problems,” he observes, “so these guys are definitely more shell-shocked.”

“Shell-shocked” could very well apply to those entrepreneurs who are establishing new businesses or expanding existing ones in these times. Seasoned restaurateur and popular Princeton chef Bobby Trigg of the Ferry House has two new ventures about to hit the scene. BT Bistro is slated to open in the coming days in the spot (completely renovated) that had last been Charlie Brown’s on Route 1, adjacent to the Clarion Palmer Inn. His long-awaited top-to-bottom, stud-to-stud transformation of the historic Peacock Inn into a 16-room luxury boutique hotel — complete with its upscale restaurant, BT 20 — is scheduled to open later this year.

But Trigg is taking it all in stride. For one thing, he says, the Ferry House has remained busy. “I can’t complain — it has been paying my bills. Financing is tough. Right now, it’s coming out of my and my partner’s funds. The economy has made us think twice about being the new kid on the block.”

That said, at BT Bistro, about half of the restaurant’s 100-bottle wine list will fall under $40. “We want to do better than the typical markup of three times the average retail,” he says. The restaurant will also feature two happy hours: one from 4 to 6 p.m. and another between 10 p.m. and midnight. The canny Trigg has forged a special deal with Belvedere Vodka so that he can offer reduced prices on brand-name cocktails. ($7 martinis are a possibility.) He employs the term “user friendly” to describe his approach to food and beverages at the bistro. This means $3 draught beers (“the good stuff”) during happy hours, premium dry-aged steaks at the $30 mark, a $10 burger at the bar — even an “upscale” all-you-can-eat salad bar, complete with baby and micro greens.

Even at the forthcoming BT 20, Trigg intends price points to fall between $10 and $31. “I don’t want to be the high kid on the block as well as the new kid on the block,” he says. “I think we’ve weathered the storm. We have to hit a low sometime, and hopefully I will open after that.”

Last August Mark Centsis added a Princeton location to his original CoolVines wine shop in Westfield. He is noticing that people are buying lower-priced products. To generate interest his shops have teamed up with small BYOs in both areas — among them Princeton’s Calico Grill and the Blue Bottle in Hopewell — to mount creative, well priced, multi-course wine dinners. In an E-mail Centsis writes, “Our first wine dinner of the season sold to well over our target of 30 people (51) in just two weeks. This shows that, economy schmonomy, people still want to get out of the house for a good time. We price these dinners to meet new people and just cover our costs, so they are a great deal for patrons.”

The newest entry on the Princeton restaurant scene: Elements, appears to be bucking the trend. In the months since opening on Route 206, co-owner/chef Scott Anderson has amassed a devoted following who delight in his sophisticated modern American cuisine and the restaurant’s equally sophisticated modern architecture and decor. With the exception of some very high-end dishes — rare Kindai tuna for example — prices at Elements are on par with other upscale restaurants in the area — Stage Left in New Brunswick, for example. Up until now the restaurant has served dinner and Sunday brunch, but Anderson will be adding weekday lunch starting on Monday, April 6. “Customers have been requesting it,” he says, noting that his restaurant offers free parking in two lots, a commodity hard to come by in downtown. (See sidebar, page 15.)

Irene Virbila, restaurant critic for the LA Times, has issued this trenchant warning to restaurant goers everywhere: “If everyone suddenly gives up restaurant-going when times are tough, those favorite restaurants may no longer be around when times get better. Which means it’s a good thing, every once in a while at least, to give in and go out to dinner. You cannot keep the entire restaurant scene alive by yourself, but you can support the restaurants that have meant something to you over the years.”

A sampling of deals for dining well without breaking the bank. (Always contact the restaurants for additional details and to confirm that these deals are still in effect. Prices do not include tax and gratuity, and the customary “may not be combined with other offers or discounts” restrictions apply.)

Brothers Moon, Hopewell. “Tastes of The Moon” dinner menu: two courses for $29, three courses $35, Tuesday through Thursday (ongoing).

Christopher’s at the Heldrich, New Brunswick. “Office Get-Together” Package (any small group seems to qualify): Starts at $19 per person for appetizer sampler platters with hot wings, BBQ wings, Cajun shrimp, chicken ribbons, quesadillas, garlic bread, blue cheese, sour cream, and guacamole. Also, $2 draft beer and $1 off specialty drinks.

Daryl, New Brunswick. With coupon from website (www.darylwinebar.com) through Thursday, April 30. $10 off, Tuesday through Thursday, on any purchase over $30. Also, free coca (Spanish-style pizza) and glass of wine with the purchase of dinner (restrictions apply). See also sales on particular wines in adjacent Daryl’s wine shop.

Eno Terra, Kingston. Wines and light fare from $4 to $6 from 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Wednesday. Through April, at minimum.

Fedora Cafe, Lawrenceville. Tuesday and Thursday: with purchase of any $10.99 entree, get dessert for $1 (and Fedora is known for its elegant, creative desserts). Also, Wednesday, live entertainment with no cover charge. Friday and Saturday are “Gravy Night”: salad, pasta, meatballs, and garlic bread for $10.99.

Frog & Peach, New Brunswick. Half-price food at the bar, Monday through Friday, 4 to 6 p.m., through March. Also, bistro dinner menu: three courses for $38, two courses for $30 every evening (ongoing). $25 prix-fixe 25th anniversary lunch menu, Monday through Friday (ongoing). New “New Deal” wine specials: end-of-bin sale with prices reduced 25 to 35 percent; usually a group of about 20 wines (ongoing).

Hamilton’s Grill, Lambertville. “Grazing Menu:” three courses for $25, Monday through Thursday. “Jim’s Tuesday Tableside Tradition:” three courses and beverage for $30; prepared by Jim Hamilton in the garden room, second Tuesday of each month from October through May; limited to 30 people. “Wednesdays for Women Dinner/ Networking:” three courses for $25; for women only, first and third Wednesday of each month from October through June; limited to 40 people (call for details).

KatManDu, Trenton. Friday night “Economy Buster” all-you-can-eat buffet for $5 from 5 to 8 p.m. Includes pasta station, stir-fry station, carving station, mashed potato bar, nacho bar, and more, plus happy hour-priced drinks.

Lambertville Station, Lambertville. “The All Together Menu:” three course fixed-price menu for $19.99 from 3:30 p.m. to closing, Sunday through Friday.

Meil’s, Stockton. “Economic Stimulus Package:” three courses for $15 comprising soup or salad, one of a selection of entrees that are slightly smaller versions than on the regular menu, and dessert. Every night but Saturday. Also available: smaller portions with smaller price tags (ongoing).

P.F. Chang’s, Princeton. “Chang’s for Two:” four courses comprising two soups, one starter, two entrees, and two mini desserts for $39.95. Dine in only; ongoing, but restaurant advises call ahead to confirm availability.

Rat’s, Hamilton. Prix-fixe dinner menu: three courses for $38, Tuesday through Friday. At least through April and possibly beyond.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Princeton. “Ruth’s Classics” prix-fixe menu: three courses including a salad, entree, side dish, and dessert for $39.95. For an as yet unspecified “limited time only.”

Salt Creek Grille, Forrestal Village, Plainsboro. $28 prime rib dinner, Sunday through Thursday. Half-priced wines by the glass, hal-priced appetizers, and free sliders distributed twice — at 5 and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, 4 to 6:30 p.m. Also, management will pick up the dinner and drinks tab at random for one lucky table every night.

Stage Left, New Brunswick. “Petite Menu:” prix-fixe three course dinner menu for $35; for $49 includes a glass of wine to complement the first two courses.

Stockton Inn, Stockton. $10 bar menu: Choice of eight entrees accompanied by mashed potatoes and vegetables, daily. Wednesday night pasta night: $12 includes salad, pasta, and dessert — plus live jazz piano by Eric Mintel.

Triumph Brewing, Princeton and New Hope. $7 bar menu: Choice of eight sandwiches, wraps, hoagies; 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., seven days a week.

Yardley Inn, Yardley, PA. “Lunch for Less:” three courses for $12.95. Also, “Dine Early, Pay Less:” three courses for $19; 4:30 to 6:15 p.m. and all night on Tuesday.

Za, Pennington. “Mediterranean Lunch:” Salad, penne pasta with a choice of sauces, and a grilled garlic croustade for $9 — and, incidentally, under 500 calories (ongoing). On all else, a five percent discount for cash payment is always in effect.

Pat Tanner’s restaurant reviews and weekly food blog can be found at www.newjerseylife.com. Her April reviews focus on Princeton.

More Deals

From Dining Venues

The following restaurants, all advertising sponsors of the U.S. 1 special dining section, offer readers a wide variety of special dining packages. We begin with two that are new to the Princeton area dining scene:

On the Bone, 4355 Route 1, Princeton, adjacent to the Doubletree Hotel at Ridge Road and Route 1 South. 609-514-BONE. www.ontheboneprinceton.com

Beginning Friday, March 27, Princeton-area residents can feast at On the Bone, a new concept in dining that features the finest meats and chops served on the bone. According to Joe Stamile, general manager at On the Bone, “Meat is always sweeter and tastier when it’s served on the bone to preserve the juices. Folks really enjoy it that way.”

All guests are invited to join On The Bone’s VIP Club, at no cost, which will provide each member with special offers and invitations to events. From launch through April all club members will be able to turn back the clock to 1999 prices, with select entrees priced at $19.99. These include veal osso bucco, a full rack of ribs slow cooked til it falls off the bone and an all natural prime rib pork chop.

The grass-fed, all natural and preservative-free beef featured at the new restaurant is complemented by a full menu of fresh offerings including sustainable seafood, organic produce in season and whenever possible, ingredients sourced from Central New Jersey farmers. The lunch crowd will be able to enjoy hand-carved sandwiches showcasing a different cut of meat each day, served on a choice of artisan breads with all the accoutrements. The small-plate section of the menu highlights items that are suitable for sharing as appetizers or as a main course for those looking to dine on the lighter side.

On the Bone’s contemporary interior design creates a festive and relaxed feel. The dining room’s jewel tones are offset by unique, geometric table tops and modern artwork. An artful, sky-blue, glass-backed wall in the lounge serves as a stunning focal point, inviting guests “to be and be seen.” There revelers will enjoy the most current cocktails like mojitos, cosmos, and martinis, all made with fresh-squeezed juices, as well as an assortment of great beers and popular wines.

Like the menu, the price points at On the Bone were developed with the Princeton community in mind. “People here work hard and like to play hard in their off time,” says Stamile. “So whether it’s a business lunch or a time to relax and party they are looking for what we are offering – great food and libations, in a fun atmosphere all delivered at prices they can afford.” Adds Stamile: “At On the Bone you won’t need to take out a loan to dine with your friends or family.”

On the Bone is owned by the Shamrock-Hostmark Hotel Fund, the multi-faceted investment and management partnership which has chosen Princeton as the venue for the first On the Bone restaurant. A second restaurant is planned for Andover, MA, in 2009.

Shamrock is the private investment vehicle for the Roy E. Disney family.

Located at 4355 Ridge Road and Route 1 (adjacent to the Doubletree Hotel Princeton), On the Bone is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, from 11 am until midnight. Reservations are recommended by calling 609-514-BONE or by visiting www.ontheboneprinceton.com.

Parallel 40, in the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village, 201 Village Boulevard, Princeton. 609-452-7900. www.westin.com/princeton.

Parallel 40, the area’s newest international dining experience located inside the newly renovated Westin Princeton, brings together uniquely diverse tastes from around the globe and fuses them into an irresistible mix of worldly cuisines designed to intrigue and satisfy the adventurous palate.

Parallel 40 also offers a great way to satisfy the need to economize. The restaurant’s “Prix Fixe Dinner” gives you an appetizer, entree, and dessert for only $20 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. or for $25 from 6:30 to 10 p.m.

Familiar Favorites

Alchemist & Barrister, 28 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-5555. The A&B offers its own version of a “stimulus package:” 10 percent off the entire food and drink check, with presentation of the ad that appears on page 14 of this issue.

Calico Grill, 180 Nassau Street, behind Cox’s Store, 609-924-0500. This charming BYOB restaurant, serving an eclectic eastern Pacific menu, offers a three-course dinner for $25 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

Ivy Garden, 238 Nassau Street, Princeton, 609-921-2388. This popular Chinese restaurant offers 10 percent off at lunch or dinner.

Lahiere’s, 5 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, 609-921-2798. A Princeton dining institution since 1919, Lahiere’s offers a three-course prix-fixe dinner Monday through Thursday evenings for just $32.

Rocky Hill Inn, 137 Washington Street, Rocky Hill, 609-683-8930. This venerable tavern offers 15 percent off bottles or wine or a free appetizer to diners on Monday through Wednesday evenings.

Sejal’s Pizza, 3391 Route 27, Frnaklin Park, 732-422-0007. Get one free pizza when you buy two pizzas with toppings; or get $1 off any specialty pizza or ice cream; or $5 any purchase of $30 or more.

Szechuan House, 2022 Nottingham Way, across from Siperstein’s, Hamilton. 609-890-7600. On of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in a 2007 survey, Szechuan House offers a “dining in” special of a free soup or egg roll with one entree per table, or a “take-out” special of $3 off an order of more than $25 or more.

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