What I keep hearing everywhere from friends and family is that the purse-tightening pigeons have finally come home to roost. It has in our house. Though the front-page warnings of dire personal economic decision-making have been around for awhile now, it has taken several months for the headlines to trickle downward. Cutting back is unanimous. We are all in the same boat. Our houses are worth less, investments worth less, retirement and savings accounts worth less--or depleted--and everyone I talk with says that local eateries not offering obvious value, or the restaurants whose check averages are in the top half of the market, are not faring well at all.
I took a drive last week during the dinner hour and saw ghost towns instead of dining rooms. Friends who are servers at St. Paul restaurants told me that they are looking elsewhere for work. I cruised by W.A. Frost on the suggestion of a friend and was surprised at how few customers were in the dining room. Cosmos at the Graves Hotel was eerily silent, and three weeks ago on a Friday evening, I walked into Porter and Frye without a reservation; we got the only available seat, but still, restaurants, even those offering tremendous value, are going to have to figure out how to make the numbers work Sunday through Thursday. Will eateries still do business at 7 p.m. on weekends? Of course. But all other times will suffer a greater customer drought than at any other time in the seventeen years I have lived here. How bad is it elsewhere? Really bad.
I got a message from a friend of a friend telling me that Louis Osteen (Beard Honoree, etc.), one of the most awarded restaurateurs and chefs in the country, had closed his restaurants and was looking for work. Similar stories are running rampant in my world as food folks, who kept leveraging success throughout the last few years, extended themselves so thin in 2006 and 2007 that when the bottom fell out of the credit bucket, they couldn't sustain themselves. I think that small eateries, owner-operated, with smaller overheads will survive as will places that offer diners the opportunity to eat with them weekly. But where I once thought we would see many closings before 2009, I am now saying it is a stone-cold lock.
For as long as I have been in the business, every time a fundraiser or charitable event was planned, the first calls always went out to the restaurant community. And every time, that community responded selflessly with donations of time, money, products, and gift cards. It might be time to return the favor. We could lose a lot of restaurants in the coming months, and with the credit and business environment we are in, don't look for a many openings in 2009.
The upside to all the bad news? People are eating in more. So if you are a fancy food addict looking to gussy up your dessert options at home, try this easy and elegant little number . . .
Frozen Maple-Bourbon Souffles
Makes 8 servings
6 egg yolks
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. maple syrup, or more to taste
2 3/4 c. heavy cream
3 oz. Maker's Mark bourbon
1 T. orange zest
Whip the egg yolks, maple syrup, and sugar until stiff in a food mixer with a whisk attachment.
Whip the cream until stiff. Fold cream into eggs. Fold in the bourbon and orange zest. Spatula the mousse into a pastry bag without a tip. Divide into 8 balloon wine glasses. Freeze for 8 hours, and serve.Garnish with toasted pecans, spiced if you like.
May be made a day in advance to this point, but I like to make these at lunchtime for dinner that night.