A Dilemma of Sturgeon Proportions

Drink tap water, not Evian

So it's been just about two months since the terror attacks, and I've been doing my thing, eating and drinking and chatting up the food folks. And after hearing what the local restaurateurs and chefs have to say -- at least until the wine impaired my listening skills -- I've come to one conclusion: The culinary crowd is caught in a dilemma of sturgeon proportions.

See, the restaurateurs need to cut costs, but they can't risk compromising quality. They want to run specials, but they still have to turn a profit. They can't afford to keep on all the staff they have, but they're also aware that any improvements in our current circumstances will then require them to hire green, untrained employees -- an overall loss of time and money.

We consumers have our own difficulties. We want to dine out at our usual haunts but can't see our way to paying the usual check average. We want to take advantage of the multitude of special dinners and prices but feel as bombarded by the quantity as a tourist confronted by menu-waving hostesses does on Lincoln Road. We can't afford to be regulars anywhere; however, we realize that habit is not only comforting but supportive -- restaurants that can't boast a steady stream of familiar patrons don't survive.

What to do, what to do? Especially when you want to scale gastronomic walls, not scale back?

As it turns out, there's plenty that restaurateurs and chefs can do to conserve without looking like, or tasting like, cheapskates. I recommend the following:

Follow the firetrucks. Don't bother buying expensive smokers and pricey hickory chips. Just monitor the fire station closest to your eatery. When the whistles blow, don't think house or factory fire. Think fuel and billowing smoke. Think racks of ribs. Think, hmm, tough economics, there's probably going to be plenty of arson and insurance-collecting going on. Such firestorms -- that is, brainstorms -- will come in especially handy for barbecue joints as well as the more upscale restaurants, like Aria in the new Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne, which is so avant-garde it serves smoked lemon sorbet. And yes, it tastes the way it sounds.

Ix-nay on the imports. Sure, allowing Iran to finally export its caviar has given the Russian market some delicious competition. Absolutely, Kobe beef is some of the most tender flesh around. And I'm well aware it's white-truffle season. But let's be reasonable, not to mention patriotic. American sturgeon (paddlefish) caviar and salmon roe really aren't all that fishy. Angus can take on Kobe any day. As for white truffles ... well, I'm afraid that the patch of grass on the sidewalk next to your restaurant isn't about to yield anything except toadstools. But be honest: You weren't about to spend up to $1500 per pound (wholesale) importing those stupendous tubers anyway, now were you?

Offer aggression release. Before installing massage therapists at the tables, ask yourself this question: Which eateries aren't really suffering losses? Can't figure it out? Okay, I'll help you: the ones that have really big knives. Like Morton's, Smith & Wollensky, Ruth's Chris. In fact a server at Capital Grille told me her income hasn't really been damaged at all. Despite the times, or maybe because of them, "men still want to be men," she says. In other words that rib-eye ain't really beef; it's bin Laden. Or do as Rustic Inn Crabhouse does and put wooden mallets on the tables. At this Fort Lauderdale landmark, the mallets are for cracking crabs. But there's nothing wrong with taking a whack at a roasted chicken or two. It's better for the heart rate than yoga.

As for us diners, there are plenty of ways we can scale back without sacrificing eating out altogether. Here are the practices I preach:

It's called tap water. Order it. It's free. Evian ain't. And just in case you haven't heard -- or left the house in the past several weeks -- the depleted water-supply warnings have turned into flood watches. And now there's been extra help from Michelle.

Drink your lunch. You'll sleep through dinner. That saves you the cost of one meal right then and there. Plus, restaurant lunch items are far less expensive than dinner ones, though the price of drinks tends to remain consistent regardless of the hour. Unless, of course, it's happy hour.

Bottom-shelf it. I know, I know. You like your single malts and your specialty martinis and your high-end bubbly. Screw it. A rocks glass filled with Wild Turkey or a martini shaken with Smirnoff or a cold flute of Korbel really isn't that bad. Especially during cold-and-flu season, when you can't taste anything anyway.

Finally, this is for all of us:

Keep your receipts. I'm actually serious about this one. Operators and senators alike, particularly those from tourist-dependent states, are lobbying for the restoration of 100 percent business-meal tax deductibility. Business meal spending, writes Nation's Restaurant News, "accounts for about sixteen percent of all total eating-and-drinking-place sales, or about $40 billion a year." Under current law you can only deduct 50 percent of your expenses, but if that were to change, the National Restaurant Association predicts a ten-billion-dollar increase in sales. It's a win-win-win situation: The restaurateurs profit, your clients (or friends who have suddenly become business acquaintances) get fed, and you get to deduct your complete expense from your taxes at the end of the year. So start those letter-writing campaigns now. George W. is indicating that he'd rather influence the total economy rather than one industry segment. But given the outcome of the presidential election, we all know just how much influence Jeb's got -- and as our governor, at least for the time being, what he's got is a vested interest in seeing our hospitality industry thrive. As do we.

 
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