Recession Menus Lure Diners Back to the Table

Not every meal has to be a no-frills affair. Some luxury restaurants are simply serving slightly less of their lavish offerings. With business down 20 to 50 percent at some top establishments, restaurateurs are seeking to lure diners back to the table with affordable plates that don't skimp on the extras.

In Israel, the upscale Rafael bistro in Tel Aviv was the first to introduce prix fixe "recession menus" back in October. "I prefer to see a full restaurant even if I make less money," says the chef, Rafi Cohen, who offers a variety of set menus that incorporate premium local produce over costly, imported ingredients like langoustine or caviar. Messa, another ultrachic restaurant in Tel Aviv, now offers diners half-portions of its signature dishes, such as delicate seafood couscous in crab and lemon thyme broth. The amuse-gueule, starched napkins and meticulous service remain the same here and at Catit, where diners can enjoy a palate cleanser of sangria sorbet between tasters of yellow carpaccio with hyssop leaves and Swiss chard with yuzu creme.

In London, the Square, a hyperposh, Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair, now offers three-course deals for under $45, including roast sirloin and chocolate soufflé with burnt orange ice cream. And New York's Restaurant 81 recently launched an "Economy Friendly Menu" for $30.81, offering any two courses from a set menu that includes pumpkin risotto and scallop ravioli; it's designed to "keep the wheels turning, people working and the restaurant healthy," says chef Ed Brown.

Some places didn't wait for the recession to slash prices. Classy Dublin restaurants like l'Ecrivan and Mint added tempting cheaper meals last year. And American cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington already hold Restaurant Week, during which high-end restaurants offer diners prix fixe meals for between $20 and $35. Now some of those eateries are extending the deals indefinitely.

Even new restaurants are getting with the program. Jacob Kenedy, who opened the trendy Bocca di Lupo in London's Soho neighborhood last October, has been working 100-hour weeks to keep up with demand. His formula? An incredible array of dishes in varying sizes—and prices. An Umbrian-radish-and-pecorino salad with pomegranates and truffle oil, for instance, costs $7. Which proves that high dining doesn't have to mean high prices.

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