« January 2009 Table of Contents
Behind the Line: No jacket required
Chef Allen's, Pacific Time trade in white tablecloth for casual concepts
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
"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
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,
"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
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
"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
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