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Behind the Line: No jacket required

Chef Allen's, Pacific Time trade in white tablecloth for casual concepts

Pacific Time added variety to its menu with dishes
    such as Skate with Parsnip Pure. - Photo by Andrew Meade, courtesy of Pacific
By Lauren Kramer
January 01, 2009

While the recession bites into Americans' wallets, dining out in restaurants is one of the first places where cutbacks are made. According to a GfK Roper Report published in September 2008, 55 percent of Americans are eating out less than in 2007.

Even among households with incomes over $100,000, nearly two thirds have made some sort of eating change, says Tim Kenyon, senior market analyst with the New York-based market research firm.

"For 90 percent of Americans, dining out is seen as an indulgence, a luxury," he adds. "Our report found that consumers are foregoing eating out, and when they do dine out in restaurants, they are cutting back once they're there by not ordering an appetizer, drinks or dessert."

Fine-dining restaurants would be the first to feel the pinch of this reticence, so for Chef Allen Susser in Miami, the decision 
to change the architecture, 
menu and service at his 20-year-old Miami restaurant Chef Allen's could not have come at a better time.

"A few months ago we started noticing that people are eating more casually and simply today than they have in the past. We started strategically planning a change in the restaurant, to make it more attractive, casual and more approachable in terms of the cuisine, less complex flavors than we have used in the past," he says.

Chef Allen's closed for two weeks in July, reopening Aug. 1 as Chef Allen's Modern Seafood Bistro, with some major changes. The interior was redesigned to look more modern and sophisticated, and the focus of the new menu is local, organic and sustainable seafood with greater variety and price options than before. The style of food preparation has changed, too.

"Before, for example, we offered a vindaloo roasted pompano with green mango and curry sauce, served with a macadamia nut rice, an intricate dish with lots of flavors and spices," he explains. "Today one of our most popular dishes is our whole roasted yellowtail snapper with saffron tea and red quinoa. The fish is roasted whole on the bone, minimally seasoned and served with a light brothy sauce. It's more approachable, and from the diners' perspective it's easier to understand what you're ordering."

Entrée price points were reduced to $25 from $35 to $38. Prior to August, table service included an amuse bouche (a single, bite-size hors d'oeuvre), whereas today diners are offered a relish tray with homemade pickles, and the service is less formal.

"It's still mandatory that we serve the customer well, but the wait staff are now trained to be more approachable and talkative at the table," says Susser.

Despite the recession, Susser is experiencing twice the customer traffic than before.

"It was just time for a very dynamic change in what we do, because of what people eat, what they're knowledgeable about and the way food has changed," he says. "We have a lot more business now and diners are frequenting the restaurant more often than when we were seen as a special occasion place with a major wine list."

Another chef who recently relocated and changed menu options to reflect diners' preference for choice, variety and less expensive entrées is Jonathan Eismann, chef and owner of Pacific Time, also in Miami. In May he relocated the 15-year-old restaurant from Lincoln Road to the city's design district, an up-and-coming neighborhood that, according to Eismann, will be "one of the best dining 
areas in Miami in the next six to 12 months."

"My rent is more reasonable, I don't have to pay $500,000 in rent anymore, so I could afford to drop my restaurant prices 
by 35 or 40 percent," he says. "The restaurant style has also 
become more casual, to reflect the times."

Previously, Pacific Time featured a traditional menu with appetizers, entrées and desserts. Today, the menu offers diners small plates, cheaper half-portion entrées that allow diners to have a more variety-filled meal without getting locked into a single $30 or $40 dish.

"Our timing in terms of the recession was great," says Eismann. "We've definitely downscaled from a white tablecloth restaurant to one with a light, strident, city-like downtown atmosphere, which is important because customers don't want something stuffy right now. Today our space is contemporary, with raw cement and thick wood tabletops."

There were other reasons for the relocation, too. Lincoln Road had changed over the decade-and-a-half, says Eismann. "Now, it's more of a run-of-the-
mill place with a mall-type atmosphere where people want to eat ice cream and pizza," he reflects. "We just moved ourselves to where our clientele had replanted itself."

Pacific Time has a strong seafood reputation, and though his plate sizes have changed, Eismann's preparation techniques have not. Dishes are still served with light vinaigrettes and sauces, and the seafood offerings are plentiful, including fluke, Florida shrimp, conch, salmon, tuna, skate and many other species prepared with a California-American approach and an Asian influence. "We're doing very well, thank goodness," he says. "Even with the economic downturn, our numbers are on par with what they were before."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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