I'm curious as to thoughts and observations about the effects of the current economic recession on the restaurant scene in the Chicago area.
I haven't observed an unusually high number of restaurant closings yet. Of course, it's difficult to discern the impact of the recession in an industry where restaurants are constantly opening and closing and where places that stay in business for many years are largely the exception rather than the rule, even in good times. But I keep expecting a flood of closing announcements, and it hasn't materialized as of yet.
However, in reading columns like in the Tribune (and its Metromix online companion) and the Dish column of Chicago Magazine, I have observed a significant slowing in plans to open a number of restaurants. Some places are still opening, but especially with more elaborate and expensive undertakings, lots of restaurant projects seem to be reported as on hold.
Special deals seem to be proliferating. This is the second year that Chicago is celebrating Restaurant Week (see http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/585615 ) and Opentable recently held its new, similar "Appetite Stimulus Plan" (see http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/569849 ). The timing could not be better. Similar deals are popping up independently on the part of many restaurants, especially ones which attract diners on nights other than Saturday, as noted in Phil Vettel's new column at http://www.chicagotribune.com/enterta... There's a huge concentration of "where the deals are" columns in the media; sometimes it seems like that's almost all that's being written.
Some restaurants are revamping their entire menu, with lower everyday prices. Sweets and Savories has a new menu in which the entrees are in the teens, rather than the twenties that formerly prevailed. one sixtyblue's new menu has entrees in the low twenties, rather than the low thirties previously, although one would leave open the possibility that their recent change in executive chef could be as responsible for their new direction as the economy. Just this week, when dining at Oceanique in Evanston, I saw them post a sign noting that they were extending their Wednesday lobster entree deal ($20 instead of the usual $36), which was originally only for January, through the end of March.
As in many other sectors of the economy, value seems to be what everyone is yearning for. Places that provide a good value continue to do well - not only in the "cheap eats" part of the business, but also nicer places whose prices compare favorably to competitors, regardless of whether or not they're part of specific deals. La Sardine is still packed on Tuesdays for their $25 three-course deal. Michael in Winnetka continues to do a solid business.
I'd love to hear additional thoughts and observations regarding the direction of Chicagoland dining in light of the economic recession.