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Restaurant Trend in Boston this Past Year - Discounted
 Prix Fixe Dinners to "Small Plates"

By Donna Goodison, Boston HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

January 1, 2009 --Aquitaine Group partner Jeff Gates recently was eating at Woodward, the "modern day tavern" at Ames, the new luxury boutique hotel in Boston. His experience summed up the year's biggest story for the restaurant scene.

"I looked at my wife and said, 'Damn, these entrees are 20 bucks!' " Gates said. " 'And it's Seth Greenberg's restaurant!' "

From lower-priced menu items to discounted prix fixe dinners to "small plates," restaurants reacted to the recession with menus that accounted for the squeeze on diners' wallets.

"The real result of the post-Lehman era is that this has been an incredibly deflationary time for diners to eat in Boston," Gates said, referring to the September 2008 collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers. "The pricing that's in restaurants now is the cheapest it's been since the '90s."

Three-star Michelin chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's opened Market by Jean-Georges at the new W Boston Hotel, and all dinner entrees except for a prime New York strip steak are priced in the teens and $20s. Himmel Hospitality Group spent $8 million on the build-out of Post 390 at Clarendon, and the majority of the entrees on chef Eric Brennan's menu are similarly priced. And all of the entrees at Woodward follow suit.

"It's a fantastic restaurant with a great team in prime real estate in Boston that easily, two or three years ago, would have commanded $30 and $40 entree prices," Gates said.

The Aquitaine Group, which owns Aquitaine, Gaslight, Union and Metropolis in the South End, responded to tougher economic times with prix fixe "beat the rush" theater menus for $29.95, a few of which include a beverage. It also lowered Union's menu prices by 10 to 15 percent.

Other examples: Da Vinci Ristorante in the South End is offering three-course dinners for a $33.09 Restaurant Week price.

In April, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar started offering five appetizers for $6 each before 7 p.m. It recently added a full-size burger and fries to the list.

Small plates -- what the Spanish call tapas and Italians know as stuzzichini -- emerged as a culinary trend in Boston this past year.

Banq, the South End restaurant that opened last year, recently was revamped into Ginger Park, with new chef Patricia Yeo cooking up Asian small plates.

Todd English's Bonfire at the Park Plaza Hotel was extinguished in August after eight years and replaced with Pairings, another small plates restaurant.

And with South End tapas hot spot Toro already under their belts, chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette collaborated on a second small plates restaurant. Coppa, an enoteca, opened this month at the other end of the neighborhood.

Small plates give diners more options gastronomically, allowing for more variety in a sitting or a communal feed. But they also let people dine more economically.

"That kind of dining is more non-committal," Bissonnette said. "Being able to go out and get a $5 plate, an $8 plate or $15 plate has a perceived value. If you're a foodie, you can get a lot of variety and try more things. And people who aren't into food -- who just go out for the social aspect of it -- can go out on a budget."

A friend recently asked Bissonnette why he would open another small plates restaurant. Bissonnette reminded him of when the two were in high school and would go to Friendly's or Denny's after a punk show and order two or three appetizers. Small plates are the "adult way" of doing that, Bissonnette told him.

"Who would go into an L'Espalier and say, 'I want to order four appetizers'?" Bissonnette said, referring to Boston's high-end French restaurant. "But that doesn't mean people don't want to do it."

This past year saw the breakup of one of the city's most successful restaurant partnerships.

Chef Michael Schlow bought out partners Christopher Myers and Esti Parsons, with whom he owned Radius and Via Matta. There was said to be no love lost between Schlow and Myers, who also operated Great Bay, the high-end seafood restaurant at Hotel Commonwealth that closed in June.

This year also saw several other high-end restaurants priced out of the market as diners turned to less expensive options -- most notably Aujourd'hui at the Four Seasons.

One of the city's top-rated eateries, the upscale, 24-year-old French restaurant closed in June to make way for hotel function space.

Chef Chris Douglass toasted the last day of Icarus in July. He shuttered the South End mainstay of more than 30 years to concentrate on his two more affordable Dorchester restaurants, Ashmont Grill and Tavolo.

Excelsior, the upscale contemporary American restaurant at Heritage on the Garden, closed after five years amid dwindling sales to make way for the more casual and less expensive Bistro du Midi. Owner Ken Himmel said the restaurant was no longer in synch with current dining trends that favor more value.

Chef Marc Orfaly resurrected Restaurant L in the upscale LouisBoston clothing store but closed it after just two months.

And chef Anthony Susi called it quits at Sage in the South End in October after relocating from the North End in 2007. He's now executive chef at Teatro.

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