Luigi Romaniello glides into the restaurant at the back of the Mansion on Peachtree, his high-end boutique hotel. He folds his elegant frame into a chair overlooking the manicured courtyard garden. In a voice richly accented with his native Italian, he starts talking about … fried green tomatoes.
“We’re trying to become more approachable,” the hotel’s managing director said. “Less pretentious. We want to get away from people using Neo only for a special occasion. It doesn’t have to be your 50th anniversary or your 25th birthday. It can be a Tuesday night.”
The restaurant is outfitted in a rustic new decor scheme featuring cubes of growing grass on each table, and has traded pricey Italian cuisine for less expensive farm fare. Arrivederci, gnocchi di fontina. Howdy, succotash. The goal is, of course, to start filling up this little jewel box of a restaurant with diners instead of mere ambience.
“With the way the economy is right now, people don’t want to take a hit in the wallet,” said chef Scott Hemmerly, who will be feeding diners Southern comfort food like crab and shrimp mac and cheese or North Georgia mountain trout served with black-eyed pea succotash. The country Italian panini on its lunch menu serves as a reminder of Neo’s bygone theme.
“You don’t need a dictionary to read the menu,” Hemmerly said. “These days people want what they’re familiar with.”
Tough times mean fine dining is on sale, and top-tier eateries seem to be taking cues from their super-sizing brethren on the opposite end of the foodie chain.
Park 75 at the Four Seasons hotel is offering $25 to-go dinners on Friday nights. Dogwood is serving a $25 three-course meal billed as a “bloom plate” special. The Here to Serve restaurant group is advertising a slew of deals, including all-you-can-eat tapas at Shout on Mondays and half-price bottles of wine at Home on Sundays. And midprice restaurants seem to be jockeying with fast-food outlets over budget-minded diners. South City Kitchen’s Midtown location is advertising a “summer sandwich sale,” with every sandwich on the menu listed at $7. Every taco at Holy Taco in East Atlanta is $2.50.
The bargain bites are likely here to stay for some time. Jeff Humphreys, director of economic forecasting at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, says restaurant industry woes predated the recession, and predicts discretionary spending will lag overall recovery.
“Households are going to be saving more to partially restore the wealth that was lost,” said Humphreys, who sees the recession ending in August or September but thinks massive job losses have probably come to a halt. Tax cuts ushered in as part of this year’s economic stimulus package actually have disposable income on the rise nationwide, but those extra dollars are making their way into savings accounts, not restaurants’ coffers. Technomic, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm, shows sales for full-service restaurants fell 2.5 percent last year and were expected to slide 6 percent this year. Fast-food chains posted modest growth last year and are expected to have flat sales overall this year.
Humphreys noted that many of Atlanta’s high-end dining spots cater to business travelers, but the city’s main conventioneer spigot, the Georgia World Congress Center, seems an unlikely savior for the industry. Canceled meetings, like the one Duluth-based Primerica scotched for his month, have the nation’s fourth-largest convention facility projecting a $5.64 million loss in fiscal 2010, which begins July 1.
With a sustained thinning of the expense-account brigade, restaurants such as the InterContinental Hotel’s Au Pied de Cochon are aiming promotions at local customers. Diners are invited to bring their own wine to save money – corkage is complimentary. At the XO Bar, famous in another era for its $550 Le Reve des Anges cocktail, free appetizers like yucca, plantain and potato chips appear, artfully arranged in mason jars.
“People in the bar like things that are simple and easy,” food and beverage manager Josep Juncosa said one recent afternoon. The bling cognac bottles gleamed like gems in a jewel case, but action seemed to surround the make-your-own mojito bar rather than the five C-note drink made with Hennessy Ellipse, Chambord and Dom Perignon.
“Accessible is the best word to describe it,” Juncosa said. “Hotels have the reputation of being expensive. This is a French brasserie.”
Joel, the French restaurant off Northside Parkway, has affixed “brasserie” to its name and is aggressively branding itself as a bargain. Promo cards at the hostess stand pitch “wallet friendly dining options” that seem more befitting of a sports bar than a five-star restaurant. Thursday is now “beer and pizza night.”
Diners seem to be enjoying the lean-priced cuisine.
“I have always liked Joel but before the new menu it was hard to justify stopping by for a bite,” said Aida Flamm, who recently visited on a Tuesday, when the restaurant offers an $18 bistro menu and half-price wines. “The new menu is just perfect and will get more fans stopping by.”
That’s precisely the reaction executive chef Cyrille Holota is going for.
“What I want to do is break the image people have of Joel, which is high prices and small portions,” he said. “It’s very simple, comfortable food. I’m not trying to be fancy.”
His restaurant, like Dogwood, will be taking a summer vacation. It will be on holiday from Tuesday until July 7, while Dogwood takes a hiatus from Sunday to July 6. After the summer break and into the future, Holota plans to stick with the scaled-down format.
“The French, sometimes people think we are arrogant,” he said. “Sometimes maybe we are too proud. I am not stubborn. If you stay doing what you always do before, it’s a mistake.”
Staff writer Joe Guy Collier contributed to this article.