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Times Are Tough: The Value of Value

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According to Frank Bruni’s September 2nd article on the subject, one of the striking things about the newest crop of restaurants is they used to be the old crop of restaurants.  In an environment of tightening belts, restaurants are being re-tooled to appeal to newly value-conscious diners. By refining concepts (and, like Larchmont’s upscale Plates, offering early-bird specials, bargain prix-fixe menus, catering, BYOB nights, and a farmers’ market bread stall) savvy restaurateurs are dropping their pretensions, and hustling for Westchester’s shrinking dining dollar.
 
Take Alex and Anthony Rubeo of Stoneleigh Creek, for example. You remember their cute Croton Falls nook?  It was cozy and Its eclectic menu featured roasted meats and reductions, with some Asian influences, pastas, and Maryland crab cakes, too. Satisfying and well-executed, but, you could find the same menu at 30 other restaurants in Westchester.  Plus, Stoneleigh Creek was small (40 seats) and it wasn’t exactly cheap.  Except for a pasta in the high teens, most entrées hit the mid- $20-range, although some topped $30.
 
Cue the Rubeos’ October ’07 move into Armonk.   To gain more seats, Stoneleigh Creek yielded their cute building (and, we fear, menu style and regulars) to Bungalow, and moved to larger digs in Armonk.   While Chef Anthony Rubeo (who, with his brother, Alex, owns Stoneleigh Creek) denies that the move was the problem, saying “all, well, most of our regulars followed us,” he does concede that customers were sick of his menu. In fact, as the chef, even he was sick of the menu.
 
On September 5, Stoneleigh Creek ceased to be. Still owned by the Rubeos, Armonk Lobster House now fills Stoneleigh Creek’s footprint. Gone are the tablecloths, the eclecticism, and any ambitions toward “fine dining.” Along with a $32 paella, you’ll find a $14 lobster roll, a $12 oyster po’boy, fried fish platters and steamed lobster tails.  Armonk Lobster House’s tone is decidedly casual, serving up a democratic assortment of burgers, surf and turf, and tried-and-true pastas like linguini with clam sauce.
 
While the switch might be informed by the established lobster roll trend (and by the lowest lobster prices in two years, to us, it feels more about safety. Less amorphous in concept, Armonk Lobster House communicates in broad gestures.  Like a classic steak house or a traditional French bistro, Armonk Lobster offers a proven restaurant genre in its most conservative form.
 
Will it work?  Only time will tell, although the switch is certainly on trend.  Faced with belt-tightening diners, chefs are taking fewer risks and menus are becoming more conservative.  When last we visited, Chef Neal Ferguson at Monteverde ditched his niche-market marrowbones and sweetbreads.  And, as we already noted, (see Review Rewind), Restaurant One eighty-sixed all of its evocations of molecular gastronomy.  It abandoned its sweetbreads, too.  
 
Instead of envelope-pushing concepts, we’re seeing genre restaurants opening. These restaurants offer essentially pre-established menus: steak houses, BBQ joints, French bistros and panini parlors.  We’re seeing upscale chain expansions too, like Blue Smoke in Greenwich and BLT Steak in White Plains. Like Hollywood’s love affair with endless sequels, proven restaurant concepts are finding the easiest path to investment dollars.
 
Which brings us to 42.  In this economic shakedown, the last thing restaurateurs want is emerging diners to declare, “That was so EXPENSIVE!” (Which means, of course, that the diner feels overcharged.)  We worry about restaurants like 42. Chef Anthony Goncalves’s high concept, hard-to-define menu is self-consciously extravagant—something that’s not gone unnoticed among Westchester’s top-tier diners. Since opening, 42 lowered its cocktail prices from $17 to $15, but word-of-mouth damage is hard to undo.  In a bear restaurant market, extravagance feels out-of-step.
 
Personally, we’re not giving up luxuries without a fight.  We’re starting a protest movement to demand the return of sweetbreads.

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