The Step-Down Phenomenon: Dining Out

A few weekends ago we went out to dinner with friends on both Friday night and Saturday night. Friday we went to a relatively new restaurant in the Arena District and had an exceptionally good meal. Saturday we went to a restaurant at a busy corner in the Short North and had a pretty good meal. At both locations, we noticed how empty the restaurants were. Indeed, on Friday night there were perhaps four other tables filled at a fine restaurant with well-prepared and interesting food, skilled wait staff, and very pleasant surroundings. The turnout was so low that I gave our waitress an extra-large tip to compensate for the fact that she had only two tables to handle during the entire evening. (I would mention the name of the restaurant, which Kish and I would gladly frequent again, but I don’t want to embarrass it.)

There is no doubt that the recession has affected the restaurant business. Overall, the number of restaurants in America has declined, and the drop in business has hit “fine-dining” establishments particularly hard.  In the meantime, restaurants like McDonald’s are doing just fine.  People still want to eat out.  When they go to a McDonald’s, they may not get the highest quality food, but they get out of the house, have a filling meal, and don’t have to worry about doing the dishes when they are done.

This is an instance where the step-down phenomenon has pernicious effects.  McDonald’s , with its overly salty food and bastardized versions of food classics like lattes, will always be with us.  A high-quality restaurant, on the other hand, is to be treasured and savored, and there is no doubt that more of those fine dining establishments will fail before the recession loosens its strangling grip on the nation’s economy.  No business can survive for long serving only four or five tables on a Friday night.

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