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Originally published Wednesday, September 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Restaurants try to keep diners dining amid recession worries

With inflation on the rise, restaurants are working overtime to keep diners dining when many are listening to their wallets and cooking at home. Among Seattle-area eateries that have amped up happy-hour menus, added special dinners, all-you-can-eat items and discounts or reduced prices: 0/8 Seafood Grill, Tidbit, El Gaucho, Atlas Foods, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and The Oceanaire.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Maybe you've noticed over the past few months: Those extra menu deals here, a combo special there, restaurants trying to keep you dining out in a slowing economy.

Bellevue's 0/8 Seafood Grill has extended and beefed up its daily happy hour. So has ritzy steakhouse El Gaucho and Italian spot Troiani. Piatti, in Seattle's University Village, recently added a prix fixe meal. Outback Steakhouse (Everett, Bothell, Kirkland, Seattle) is promoting a $9.99 steak dinner, and Red Lobster (Lynnwood, Federal Way) and Olive Garden (Tukwila, Lynnwood, Kirkland, Federal Way, Everett) are promoting all-you-can-eat shrimp and pasta specials, respectively. Other spots, such as TGIFriday's, are adding pint-size, cheaper versions of entrees and desserts. Fast-food joints keep expanding their value menus, a la Subway's $5 foot-long sandwich.

"In this day and age, I think we all have to be sensitive to what customers are wanting, and what they're willing to spend. ... Everybody's cutting back a little bit," said Ed Grandpre, general manager of The Oceanaire Seafood Room. Over his 40-year presence in Seattle's restaurant scene, he's weathered many a downturn.

Yet, "There's a lot involved in this particular one. The economy that we've been having, it's just been hit by so many different things as far as fuel and food costs. I think this all plays into national security and people being uneasy."

His restaurant offers a $32.95 three-course, prix fixe dinner nightly. He'll also host an economy-conscious, $65 five-course dinner paired with local wines Sept. 26, a steal in a city where some such meals top $1,000 (you may not be sipping a 1982 Château Mouton-Rothschild, but if that's in your glass, you probably aren't worried about how to pay for dinner, either).

In a year that's seen food lovers cut back on treasures like Copper River salmon, ward off price shocks with stockpiled rice and flour from Cash & Carry and crowd online recipe sites with queries for Crock-Pot recipes, many restaurants are revisiting the lessons learned in the downturn following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hoping to make it through this valley.

Chief among them: Offer a range of prices and sizes of dishes so dining out does not become an all-or-nothing proposition. Discount food to get diners in the door and boost the chance they'll buy cocktails, beer and other money makers. Alert customers when you have a deal you're sure they won't want to miss.

Chef Dan Thiessen at 0/8 considered his demographic and rejiggered his happy-hour menu so diners could leave his restaurant with a meal and a drink for less than $20.

"The biggest thing people are looking for is dining options. It's not like everyone wants to come in and have a four-course meal. ... We now have a menu where people can spend as little or as much as they want, which I think is vital in this economy."

Thiessen is seeing customers come in earlier and order four or five items from the happy-hour menu rather than two. Sharing also is en vogue.

"Before it used to be, 'I'm ordering these porcini scallops for myself.' Now they're ordering a selection and sharing among friends."

Other promotions abound (ask your favorite hangout or check its Web site for specials. Many vary their deals by the day, such as Half-price Wine Wednesdays or Two-For-One Thursdays):

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• Seattle's Tidbit Bistro is offering three courses for $30 every Sunday evening.

• Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar restaurants are offering all-you-can-eat ribs, chicken fingers and crispy shrimp (Bellevue, Renton, Tukwila, Bothell, Lynnwood, Everett and Federal Way, dine in only).

• Palisade in Seattle is offering a $32 three-course menu Sunday through Friday before 6 p.m. and Saturday before 5 p.m.

• Morton's 5-7 p.m. happy hour in downtown Seattle now includes complimentary filet-mignon finger sandwiches.

• TGIFriday's restaurants (Kirkland) are offering smaller versions of favorite entrees at lower prices, starting at $6.99-$9.99.

• Seattle's BOKA Kitchen & Bar is offering a "Recession Concession" special: Two pork empanadas and a double serving of its cucumber-melon tequila cocktail for $8 during happy hour.

• Il Fornaio in Seattle is offering free antipasti (fresh pasta, bruschetta and pizza) at its 4-6 p.m. weekday happy hour.

Seattle's Union restaurant redid its menu over the summer to offer smaller portions at a lower cost to give diners more flexibility in how much they wanted to spend. Entrees went from the $25-$30 range to less than $20.

"We need to make our food good but also approachable. We're trying to make money off volume," said chef/owner Ethan Stowell. "We would like people to come in two, three times a month and be able to afford it. Every night we see a dozen regulars, and that makes me feel good."

Half of restaurants fail or change hands within the first five years in business, says Washington Restaurant Association president Anthony Anton, so it's vital to hang on to loyal customers by alerting them to specials and accommodating their changing budgets during downturns.

"It's a challenging time right now. This has been one of the weirdest economies, and I've been tracking the industry since 1994," said Anton, who says a variety of restaurants at every price point, from fast food to fine dining, have reported a slowdown since July.

"We want to keep this traffic going so when times get good again — because everything is cyclical — people are still in the habit of going to their favorite restaurant."

It may be too late for some. Chef Naomi Andrade Smith isn't sure her Columbia City takeout and catering business, Villa Victoria, will last through the fall. This is partly due to a challenging location off the main drag, she says. But she noticed the stream of customers buying tamales, whole roast chicken adobo and burritos slowed to a trickle this summer.

"I think it's the economy. It's nuts. I think people are all on tenterhooks waiting to see what happens with the election."

Others, like the local Chow Foods restaurant chain, which includes the 5 Spot, Endolyne Joe's and Atlas, say times are lean but know from past experience that they'll make it through.

Atlas, in Seattle's University Village, just launched an election-themed $7.75 meal deal, with pulled pork on a hoagie bun, fries and a beer.

"It's what's on everyone's mind, and it's hard to put this on the menu: 'Hey, it's a recession, but you should still come spend your money here.' So we wanted to look at it from a humorous perspective while still giving everyone a great deal," said Chow Foods spokeswoman Naomi Bishop. The meal is about half what it would cost if bought separately.

"We've been around a really long time and actually, if you look at the history of the 5 Spot, when they started, the goal was to create a recession-proof restaurant. And it's working. People go back to comfort food in hard times."

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618

or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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