This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Restaurant-goers are responding with commendable common sense to the current economic downturn in ways that have striking similarities to such responses in the early 1980s, when I naively opened my restaurant, the early 1990s, and the period after the dotcom boom and 9/11.
The most obvious manifestation of this can best be labelled 'a flight to conservatism'.With reduced funds to spend, customers simply do not want to be disappointed and so they, consciously or subconsciously, make a point of returning to restaurants where they have already eaten well or been warmly looked after.This characteristic is not confined to restaurants, of course, and is perhaps why yet another James Bond film has been so enthusiastically received by film-goers, but it does make life even more challenging for anyone just opening a new restaurant.
The less obvious, but equally understandable, trend is that customers are spending less, principally and understandably on alcohol, and this has a significant and immediate effect on a restaurant's profitability. Restaurants seem to have become a by-word for the general state of the whole economy but the fact that many still can be full for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday nights does not tell the whole story. Average spends are down; the early part of the week can be very quiet; the queues at the bar waiting for a table are thinner; and if you turn up early for your table, it may well be ready and waiting for you.
What is most different about this downturn is the speed with which it has happened. Hospitality companies, those who cater for corporate and social events, were the first to notice a change in the spring but it was not really obvious in the restaurants until early September. But then, once companies had sent out emailed instructions to curb spending, the changes were marked. Even well-known chefs and restaurateurs are now consoling themselves if their turnover this year will be only a few percentage points down on last year's.
But this downturn may yield one very significant change. Over the last few weeks as I have watched the most recent openings, read the latest press releases and talked to restaurateurs, I have been increasingly aware that 2008 may see the end of nothing other than the restaurant.
By this, I hasten to add as a concerned bystander, I don't mean the restaurant as an institution, which I hope will survive and give pleasure to many generations to come, but the name. Restaurateurs appear to be deliberately doing everything to avoid calling their new openings 'restaurants'. Café, bar, bar and kitchen, bistro, bistrot de luxe, canteen, trattoria, osteria and lounge are now far more common names than 'restaurant', either alone or in some kind of combination associated with a place name or that of a well-known individual. Nobody today, it seems, wants to proclaim that they are opening a restaurant.
This is for three very different reasons. The first is that the word restaurant is associated with expense and that is an impression so many are trying to avoid today. The second is the inexorable march towards the 'café society' we all seem so comfortable in, where our working lives dictate that we want to eat perhaps a less challenging menu than a restaurant normally offers at any time of the day or night. No restaurateur today wants to miss out on what can be the lucrative trade for breakfast meetings (which are invariably less costly than lunch or dinner as no alcohol is involved) but location here is vital. On the day a recent piece of awful financial news emerged, I heard that The Wolseley, now a favourite venue for such meetings, served 421 customers at breakfast, a record number.
The principal challenge for restaurateurs today is that of broadening their appeal while at the same time firmly holding on to the restaurant's identity. For some time, many including myself tried to achieve this by splitting the available space into a brasserie and restaurant or the grill and the restaurant, a policy that can work well if the spaces can be clearly delineated. But this is a policy that by effectively dividing the space into the 'cheap' and 'expensive' seats can be construed as socially divisive, and it's not great for business if the more expensive side stays conspicuously vacant. More welcoming perhaps is the proposition of one space where a single menu accommodates everything, leaving any customer free to spend what they feel comfortable with. But does the underlying move in this direction spell the irrevocable end of the restaurant?
This feeling was reinforced recently when I saw that Ristorante Semplice, just off New Bond Street in London's West End, had just spawned Bar Trattoria Semplice only a few yards away. How long, I wondered, could the former survive with similar but less expensive Italian cooking from the same team less than a stone's throw away?
Semplice is run by three highly enthusiastic partners, restaurateur Marino Roberto, manager Giovanni Baldino and chef Marco Torri. Their passion for the business seems to have been instilled into the whole team. My request for a booking was dealt with not by one of those annoying automated systems but by two Italians who sounded genuinely thrilled to take my details.
In the evening the restaurant is quite dark, rather New York in feel, with the staff as friendly in person as on the phone. Highlights of a good meal included a first course of a warm salad of scallops, two risottos as main courses, one a well-executed risotto Milanese, the other a far more unusual rendition of wild mushrooms and red wine topped with a deboned grouse, and their ice creams. Fortunately, the lighting was not too dim for me to notice that my bill for £95 for two had been mistakenly transposed into a credit card total of over £200 by human error, an issue that was promptly rectified with apologies.
A couple of days later, lunch for two at the much brighter trattoria involved two hearty bowls of soup, pasta with a hare ragu and a hefty plate of calves liver, two glasses of wine again and one coffee but no desserts. The bill was a third cheaper at £62.
Afterwards I sat down with Baldino and asked him to explain why he had opened a trattoria so close to his restaurant and whether he didn't think the potential popularity of the former could only be at the expense of the latter.
"Obviously, we didn't expect this downturn when we took over this former pub eight months ago", he said. "But we think it's a great location to which we can attract a lot of young people who work round here and just want to pop in for a coffee or a bowl of pasta at the bar. I don't think that the trattoria will damage our business at the restaurant, in fact I am hoping that after people have come here a few times they will see the restaurant as a venue for a particular celebration. Already we have one couple who have been using the restaurant for a long time who now enjoy both. When they are entertaining separately, she prefers the trattoria but he still comes to the restaurant."
I am not so sure. The best restaurants will always survive but in the future, I believe, they may well be under any other name.
Ristorante Semplice, 9-10 Blenheim Street, London W1S 1LJ020-7495 1509. www.ristorantesemplice.com
Trattoria Semplice, 22 Woodstock Street, London W1C 2AP020-7491 8638. www.bartrattoriasemplice.com