As the 99 percent continue to chant downtown, some of New York’s most expensive restaurants have begun to adjust their prices to the economic climate. Less expensive bar or “lounge” menus have been added to bastions of culinary excellence that were formerly impenetrable to frugal diners, from Michelin starred Le Bernardin, arguably the best restaurant in New York, to Veritas, with its world-famous wine selection.
But this trend might not be simply a reaction to the current economic situation. Restaurant owners argue that cheaper bar menus are a trend in modern dining rather than an attempt to attract a wider clientele during bad economic times. “The Lounge menu has been in the works for a long time,” Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, says. “The restaurant cannot be redone every year—it’s a very expensive thing—so the timing was right to redo the restaurant, and the addition of the Lounge was a product of that.”
Diners at Le Bernadin have been increasingly younger, and Ripert adds that for this reason attracting younger aficionados of food was not one of their primary concerns—but perhaps keeping them is. A less formal, quicker dining experience seems to cater directly to younger diners.
Ripert insists that the impulse to add bar fare isn’t about expense—Le Bernadin is located in the theatre district—it’s about creating a quicker, easier experience for diners who want an upscale atmosphere, but aren’t willing to commit to a two hour meal.
“We are in the theatre district, so a lot of people would want to stop in to have a cocktail or some wine, but they couldn’t because we didn’t have an infrastructure for that,” he says. “When we redid the restaurant, we wanted to amend the experience so that they could have something pleasing and comfortable after work or before going to a show, so that they could have a cocktail, or eat a little bit while waiting for their party.”
The Lounge at Le Bernadin is faithful to the atmosphere of the restaurant’s more formal and newly remodeled dining room. The new decor maintains the ornate elegance of the original, but with more light, metallic accents and a 24 foot stormy sea painting by Brooklyn artist Ran Ortner. Though, the lounge does not take reservations or require jackets, being seated on stools doesn’t change the upscale vibe or the excellent service. The Lounge at Le Bernadin is not simply a cheaper version of the Le Bernardin experience, but a different sort of high-end experience altogether.
At Benoit, an upmarket French bistro-style restaurant four blocks uptown from Le Bernardin, the scenario is the same. Though Benoit’s bar menu was not the result of a remodel, it premiered with the opening of the restaurant in 2008 and has been a flourishing facet of the restaurant’s options ever since. Though there is something more of an emphasis on casualness in Benoit’s bar than in Le Bernardin’s Lounge, diners there are treated to essentially the same menu and same atmosphere as more formal diners.
Benoit is perhaps exemplary of resturant owners understanding the success of certain formulas. The bar-menu model used at Benoit has already proven successful at other restaurants. New York Magazine food critic Adam Platt complained in a 2008 review, “Is there room for one more cookie-cutter French brasserie in this brasserie-addled town?” It would seem that bar menu and brasserie are golden words when it comes to midtown upscale dining.
Both Benoit’s and Le Bernardin’s staffs emphasized one major difference between their respective alternative and traditional menus: the alternative menus were designed with accessibility and swiftness in mind. Of their bar, Benoit’s staff says, “People like that it’s more accessible. It’s a quicker, more laid back option, with affordable prices and the same quality food.” Similarly, Ripert says he has found that Le Bernardin is now “able to serve people making last minute decisions to come in” in a way that was previously impossible.
In this way, Ripert and Benoit’s proprietor, along with their savvy bar-endorsing counterparts, seem to have successfully adapted to the changing nature of the restaurant business. The bar menus have been extremely popular with patrons, and Ripert says the new bar menu is “of course” here to stay, not because of the revenue it brings, but because it caters to the people.