Let them eat steak! Pricey restaurants open even as many choose value menus

A number of pricey restaurants plan to open their doors soon (or already have), despite the deepening recession. The owners have spent millions on these upscale eateries at a time when many Americans are being forced to choose between hamburger and steak.

Among the restaurants that are already in business are the $12 million Union Trust Steakhouse in Philadelphia, which offers a 1.5 ounce Black Pearl cognac for $1,500; and Boston's Sensing, which offers a "recession special" duck entree for $35 and lamb for $42, according to the Wall Street Journal(subscription required). I'm not sure whose recession they're trying to help out, but it's probably not mine, given that my husband and I just ordered the 2-for-1 deal from a local restaurant as our big take-out splurge for the week.

Some of these restaurants are owned by established chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, and Terrance Brennan. But even some first-time restaurant owners are going ahead with plans to target the upscale crowd. Among them are Richard Schaeffer, former chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange. His $3 million Harbour seafood restaurant is expected to open early next month in Manhattan.

Of course the million-dollar question is who will actually eat at these places? Technomic, a restaurant industry consultant, expects fine dining sales to drop 12% to 15% this year. Meanwhile, McDonald's saw same-store sales rise 5.4% in January, helped by folks flocking to purchase value menu items as they shun more expensive sit-down restaurants.

These restauranteurs certainly have a lot of guts for taking the plunge in this rough economy. There will always be super-rich people who can afford to treat themselves to lavish meals. But I suspect that many of them are mimicking the behavior of less wealthy Americans these days and cutting back on extravagant spending. Come to think of it, I did see a stretch limo rolling through the drive-thru of a Mickey D's the other day....

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