Restaurants

EYEING COSTS: Alain Giraud, left, Josiah Citrin and other L.A. chefs say the economic downturn is changing fine dining. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

PEOPLE always have to eat, but do they have to dine out? That's the question Southern California's top chefs are facing after the last few weeks of grim economic news.

Most say that though the economic trickle-down is hurting business, so far it's been more of a hard rain than a tsunami.

Still, you can expect to see more of recent trends designed to make fine dining affordable, such as the recent proliferation of special fixed-price menus and the upsurge of more casual bistros and brasseries.

And there's an awful feeling of waiting for the next shoe to drop. What makes this even more striking is that these measures are being taken by some of the area's most popular restaurants, businesses that are usually having to turn customers away rather than having to lure them in.

"Just in the last two weeks you get the feeling that everything has changed," says Josiah Citrin of Michelin two-star Melisse. "This is something different than anything we've seen before, I think. It's scary when you look at all these businesses failing that have been around for a hundred years. We don't know everyday what's going to happen."

Restaurateurs are taking steps to control costs, but they say their options are limited. Guests still expect a night out to be a celebration, with delicious food and hospitable service in a gorgeous setting.

Tom Colicchio, chef-owner of Craft restaurants in Century City and Manhattan and star of the Bravo network's "Top Chef" reality show, says economizing comes down to little things like making sure lights and air conditioning are turned off at night. And reminding staff members that they broke $3,000 worth of wine glasses last month and need to do better.

But don't even think about asking him to cut corners on his food. "I'm not going to start buying inferior products and lowering my prices a little bit just to try to bring in more people," Colicchio says. "The worst mistake you can make in a market like this is cutting the quality of what you do to try to keep pace with the business."

Getting creative

STUCK IN an economic squeeze, restaurateurs are trying some new tactics.

One popular idea is offering special menus on days that are normally slower. Frequently these are fixed menus at more affordable prices, which allow restaurants to gauge their ordering more accurately and balance costs better while still offering their customers a taste of luxury.

Then, of course, there is the bistro-ization of Southern California restaurants. Alain Giraud's Anisette in Santa Monica and David Myers' Comme Ça in West Hollywood are the standard-bearers so far, but Thomas Keller's Bouchon is still to come.

"We're a place where you can be comfortable going without paying too much," Giraud says. "If someone wants to stop at the bar tonight and have three oysters and a glass of water, they're fine -- well, maybe a glass of Champagne would be better. But if you want to have a whole meal, you can do that too."

These restaurants were planned before the current downturn, but they are benefiting nonetheless.

Even restaurants that aren't classic bistros or brasseries are moving in that direction. One of the biggest openings recently has been Octavio Becerra's Palate Food + Wine in Glendale, which revolves around what might be called "medium plates" with a menu that tops out at about $20.

Michel Richard's Citrus at Social in Hollywood is heading there too. The restaurant opened in February as a fine-dining destination with entree prices reaching $40 and higher, but the chef says the menu is being retooled with smaller portions and lower prices.

Another bistro idea Becerra embraced is the communal table -- there are two at Palate. It not only creates a friendly, informal atmosphere, it fills out the tables more efficiently.

One tried-and-true method of dealing with economic downturns that's sure to come back is serving less expensive but still delicious cuts of meat. After the stock market crash of 2001, hangar steak seemed to be everywhere and pork belly became the new foie gras.

This slowdown comes on the heels of what has been a very busy year on the Los Angeles restaurant scene, with high-profile openings from nationally known chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Richard, Charlie Palmer and Laurent Tourondel. And there's more to come. In the next month or so, we'll see new outposts from José Andrés and Michael Mina.