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Restaurants won’t be celebrating

The bubbly may sparkle on New Year’s Eve at the nation’s restaurants, but business itself is expected to be essentially flat — despite signs the economy is improving.

Nationwide, restaurants are expecting a 1% drop in patrons Dec. 31 compared to last year. That’s about the same amount of decline in business for all of 2010, according to the NPD Group.

Todd Johnson, general manager of Lawry’s the Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, said his restaurant is offering patrons a champagne toast at midnight, but no extravagant party.

“Eating out is for the most part discretionary income,” Johnson said. “And discretionary income is pretty discretionary these days for many of us.”

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Even though business has declined at restaurants, the drop has slowed from the worst years of the recession.

“Regardless of where Americans decide to eat their New Year’s Eve meal, the declines that the restaurant industry has experienced over the last two years are softening,” said NPD spokeswoman Kim McLynn. In 2009, business for the year was down 3%.

Part of the reason for the slowing decline was that restaurants offered discounts and less expensive meal packages. Fully 24% of restaurant traffic over the last two years has been from customers who were taking advantage of coupons and other deals, McLynn said.

On New Year’s Eve at Panzanella Restaurant in Sherman Oaks, a two-piece combo will start playing at 10 p.m. Friday and patrons will be able to order from the regular menu, said co-owner Tamino Drago. Before the recession, there was a full big band, and partygoers paid much more.

But reservations this year are up.

“We’re just trying to make everybody comfortable,” Drago said. “It will be more like a regular night.”

sharon.bernstein@latimes.com


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