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Tuesday-Thursday Specials at 3 Eateries : Tasty Bait Lures Back Midweek Diners

Increasing numbers of San Diego restaurateurs report having been stricken by the midweek blues, a malady that mostly afflicts medium-size dinner houses. Its primary symptom is an absence of guests Monday through Thursday nights, followed, at least among the more fortunate, by overflow crowds on the weekends.

For several years, restaurant owners have described San Diego as a “Friday-and-Saturday-night town,” and, with certain exceptions, the characterization seems accurate. The causes behind this are legion, but the problem it presents is simple: Staff and fixed costs must be paid whether the dining room is empty or full, but a place that does significant business just two nights a week will be hard pressed to balance the books.

The remedies invented by a couple of the more daring proprietors have had less than salutary effects; several places have experimented with opening only for weekday lunch and weekend dinner, but these restrictive hours resulted in too little exposure, and none of these restaurants have survived.

Business Quadrupled

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Better solutions have been devised by three of the city’s most attractive mid-range restaurants, Thee Bungalow and the Belgian Lion, which face each other from opposite sides of West Point Loma Boulevard in Ocean Beach, and Hillcrest’s Cafe Eleven.

Thee Bungalow chef-proprietor Ed Moore said his midweek business quadrupled from an average of 25 meals a night to 100 when he goosed it along last fall by introducing $7.95 duck dinners; these meals, available Tuesday through Thursday, include a choice of soup or salad and a full vegetable garnish served with regular-price entrees. Moore said that, had he listed the duck on his standing menu, he would have been forced to charge $15.95 per portion but that, by offering the special through the month, he was able to get a bulk price on the fowl.

On average, 65 out of 100 patrons ordered duck. Goose took over for the month of January, but duck, now priced at $8.95, will return in February. (I have not, by the way, sampled one of these specials, but Moore, the founder of Cafe Eleven and an alumnus of Gustaf Anders, is a reliable chef who knows how to put a good meal on the table.)

“Business is getting tough all around, and these specials really helped put us back on the track,” Moore said. “They’re good for the consumer, and they’re good for restaurateurs, because the extra business keeps us on our toes. In the long run, everybody benefits.”

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The neighboring Belgian Lion introduced a pair of midweek specials this month, and chef-proprietor Don Coulon said the result was an immediate jump in business. (Coulon, like Moore and the proprietors of Cafe Eleven, sends periodic newsletters to regular patrons, and he advertised his innovation in the January issue.) Just as at Thee Bungalow, these specials will run through the month or longer; the choice currently is between steamed mussels in a rich broth or carbonnades flamandes , the Belgian version of beef bourguinonne in which beer replaces wine as the principal cooking liquid. Meals include the choice of soup or salad, a glamorous heap of french fries done the correct way (there is a difference) and a couple of Coulon’s beautiful vegetable dishes.

Priced at $10.50 each, these Tuesday-Thursday specials will be recognized instantly as a steal by anyone acquainted with the Belgian Lion’s finely executed regional French cooking. Coulon said he designed them particularly for working couples who would like to enjoy a quick but carefully prepared meal on the way home.

“You know, in San Diego, you turn them away on Friday and Saturday, but no one comes during the week,” Coulon said. “We want people to join us during the week. These meals are simpler and faster, and someone coming home from work can stop to eat without spending 2 1/2 hours at table.” (The restaurant’s Belgian-size meals, served at a leisurely pace, typically make for an evening-long experience.)

Destined for Big Portions

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Even though these specials carry a bargain price tag, Coulon is unable, by nature, to serve small portions. Meals open with the traditional amuse geuele (tiny hors d’oeuvres) sent as a teaser while guests read the menu; this recently consisted of a toasted round of bread covered with melted Brie and a few bracing green peppercorns. Salad was bypassed in favor of the day’s soup, a novel--at least in these parts--puree of white beans and celery that boasted a flavor of such remarkable intensity that guests around the room were observed scraping their bowls.

The mussels, piled up toward the ceiling on an immense oval platter, arrived steaming and fragrant. Coulon used the small, local specimens, which feature a sweet, nutty taste, and braised them in the shell with aromatic vegetables and white wine. The resulting broth, tangy with the scent of salt water and smoothed with a little cream, flooded the bottom of the platter and was meant to be spooned up along with the mussels.

No matter how you look at it, carbonnades flamandes can be understood as beef stew, but it is an exceptionally savory version, in this case oven-simmered with onions in a bath of thickened beer; a small amount of strong mustard is stirred in when it leaves the oven. Stewed meat can be dry, but Coulon turned out a juicy version, lightly coated with gravy and succulent to the end. Mildly spiced red cabbage (the de rigueur garnish, really) and one of the Belgian Lion’s trademark turnip souffles accompanied the dinner, and, if a turnip souffle sounds rather unlikely, try this one for its deep, earthy flavor.

New Pairing Predicted

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Mussels and carbonnades will be the midweek specials for the next few weeks, but Coulon predicted that his next pairing may be on the order of bouillabaisse (Mediterranean fish soup) and coq au Riesling, or chicken stewed in fruity white wine.

Cafe Eleven has attacked the midweek question from a different angle, because it allows Tuesday-Thursday patrons to tack an appetizer and dessert onto their regular-price entrees for an additional $4. Because meals already include the usual soup-salad choice, this added option would seem attractive only to those with minds set on really big meals; still, it makes a relatively monumental feast possible for from $11.95 to $21.95, exclusive of wine, tax and tip. Co-owner David Owen said the ploy doubled his midweek business, and he also plans to offer a set-price special beginning in February.

This pleasant, low-key Hillcrest eatery offers what best could be described as chef Robert Weycker’s own interpretations of French and continental cooking. The results generally are quite happy, as with such appetizers as the unusually robust but smooth pate, the succulent stuffed shrimp Ricardo, and the cheese-filled ravioli in a delicious, garlic-spiked cream sauce. (Garlic and cream are the Kate and Petrucchio of cuisine; sometimes they fight and sometimes they make beautiful music together.) The salads are quite good, but try the soups, which can run to such elegant surprises as a smooth, unexpectedly suave cream of eggplant.

A pleasing bite sharpened the creamy sauce that coated a broiled filet of sea bass; the pungent note came from the sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar that flavored it--clever additions. Roast leg of lamb, listed at $7.95, sounded too good to be true, as it would have been for anyone who expected thick slices of rare meat. The lamb was instead sliced wafer-thin and doused in a Madeira-flavored brown sauce, and it came off quite well indeed. Roast pork tenderloin, this time thickly sliced, reposed in an interesting sauce flavored both with blue cheese and Port, and was equally successful. Each plate included a garnish of four well-prepared vegetables and indifferent rice.

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This restaurant’s desserts deserve notice. The tray groans with homemade specialties, among which a cinnamon-tinged bread pudding cake and a lively lemon meringue pie stand out. Meals conclude with a complimentary glass of hot plum wine.

Thee Bungalow, 4986 W. Point Loma Blvd. 224-2884.

The Belgian Lion, 2265 Bacon St. 223-2700.

Cafe Eleven, 1440 University Ave. 260-8023.

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