- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Small plates, prix fixe menus, smaller inventories and behind-the-scenes bargain hunting on everything from cleaning services to scallops.

That’s how Washington area restaurants are coping with a dismal - and worsening - economic climate.

“Luckily, restaurant owners are creative animals,” says Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. If there’s a way to save, they’ll think of it, she says.

Not to worry. The savings will never affect the customer.

“If you compromise in any way on quality of food and level of service, people don’t come back,” says Ashok Bajaj, owner of six Washington restaurants, including the Bombay Club, Oval Room and Ardeo. “I would never do that.”

Instead, Mr. Bajaj says he’s consolidating and saving when it comes to providers and suppliers of everything from dry cleaning to menu ingredients. “It’s things that we should have been doing all along,” he says.

Robert Wiedmaier, chef-owner of three popular restaurants - Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck and the new Brabo - echoes the sentiment. “Each customer is our advertising. We’d never compromise their dining experience,” Mr. Wiedmaier says.

With three restaurants, he has a certain amount of buying power, and he can negotiate with suppliers and providers to bring prices down and thereby save.

Other money savers represent business practices to which he, as a “full-circle” chef, always has subscribed, such as buying whole animals and fish. Not only does it ensure better flavors and textures, but it’s a big money saver, he says.

For example, salmon fillets run about $9.95 per pound, but if you buy the whole salmon and fillet it yourself, the corresponding price is about $3.25 per pound; and you don’t waste anything. The salmon that doesn’t make it onto a plate as fillet might work out perfectly for ravioli filling, Mr. Wiedmaier says. And what doesn’t fill ravioli surely will be perfectly suited for fish stock, he adds.

It takes a skilled staff to prepare whole animals, and not all restaurants adhere to the full-circle-chef practice. “If you weren’t doing that already, you’re in trouble,” Mr. Wiedmaier cautions.

In trouble is not where he and Mr. Bajaj find themselves. “We’re lucky. January and February were very good months for us,” Mr. Bajaj says. “Maybe our profit margins won’t be what they used to be, but I think the outlook for 2009 is pretty good.”

Mr. Wiedmaier says that his restaurants are doing well but that he has seen about a 2 percent drop in sales at Brasserie Beck. “It’s not a drop in customers. They’re just sharing more and maybe not ordering as many bottles of wine,” he says.

Recognizing that customers are looking to spend less but still go out, some restaurants, such as Adour at the St. Regis Hotel, offer prix fixe menus. Adour’s prix fixe lunch menu is offered at $20.

Ms. Breaux says 2009 so far has been pretty good. She’s waiting for real sales numbers from Restaurant Week (Feb. 16 to 22). Anecdotally, though, she says restaurants report good results.

“People will always seek the sociability of restaurants, and the Washington area is very fortunate in that each change of administration brings new prospective diners to town.”

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