Regardless of the recession, meals remains to be scorching in Houston

It was a Tuesday night and the new Benjy’s were buzzing with a happy sound of 30-year-olds sipping wine and brie roasted in the wood-burning stove.

Each table was filled in a room that has a modern, airy, mid-20th century Austin feel to it.

Owner Benjy Levit says his stylish Washington Ave-nue restaurant, which is 50 percent larger than his original Benjy’s in Rice Village, has been bullied since it opened in late December.

Some may question the wisdom of opening a great new restaurant in the current economy. But in Houston, a strong restaurant lifestyle can keep restaurants afloat. According to the 2008 Zagat poll, Houstonians eat out more than residents of any other major city.

The city’s relatively stronger economy also contributes to this.

Some local restaurants have seen a softening, but many are thriving. Backstreet Café, Mockingbird Bistro, Cafe Annie and Tony reported record sales for Valentine’s Day.

And compared to the rest of the nation, Houston does a lot better.

Local diners are becoming more and more budget conscious, however, and restaurants have responded with new inexpensive menu options and offerings – even at Tony’s. Often referred to as the best fine dining restaurant in town, Tony’s recently launched a Tuesday night special: a four-course meal for two for $ 89.95 and half on each bottle of wine up to $ 200.

“From our perspective, things are stable, not nearly as bad as the rest of the country,” said Mark Ashey, vice president of sales at Glazier Foods, a local family business that sells food to restaurants.

Same lifestyle

The economy has not changed the Houston lifestyle, said Jean-Philippe Guy, owner of Bistro Don Camillo and Bistro Provence in the Tanglewood area, west of Beltway 8.

“If people struggle with the economy, will they cook at home if they have never cooked before? I do not think so. You’ll still go out, but maybe spend less, ”he said.

The average Bistro Provence Diner used to spend more than $ 50, now it’s $ 40 or less, Guy said, but he’s also had more customers in recent months.

It’s not just the top end of the market that is holding up.

“We haven’t seen a downturn. Things are going well, ”said Russell Ybarra, CEO of the seven local Gringo’s Mexican Kitchens.

“Pretty Stable”

Houston is “pretty stable,” said Rene Zamore, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. Some restaurants are still recovering from Hurricane Ike and suffering from the economy, she said, but “things are looking up” compared to a few months ago.

This is the opinion of the restaurant real estate agent Larry Plotsky.

“Given all the doom and darkness that you hear, it’s pretty shocking how good things seem for restaurants,” he said. “You don’t see many closings.”

Crowds at Benjy

At Benjy’s, 31-year-old corporate communications manager Sarah Bray had dinner with a friend, accountant Rebecca McElroy.

“Wherever I go to eat it seems to be full,” said Bray.

She found that many in her age group are not as concerned about the economy compared to previous generations.

“My generation, we are a little spoiled,” she said. “We just assume that it will get better. And the champagne makes it better. “

Even so, Bray will eat sparingly at times.

“I’m going to the Annie Bar and get a hamburger,” she said. “You still want to have that experience.”

Straight to the starter

At Ouisie’s Table, customers order differently and go straight to the main course, said General Manager Wafi Dinari.

To persuade them to order more at lunch, Ouisie’s offers smaller servings of salad, soup, and dessert at a lower price.

“Business is down 7 percent from last year, but it’s still good,” said Dinari.

It is different in other cities, where “if you only have 20 percent less, you are doing very well. There are layoffs and closings everywhere, ”said John Mariani, Esquire’s food and travel columnist.

He noted that in New York City the famous Fiamma and Fleur dand Selshrecently down.

Sugar country strong

In the Sugar Land area, restaurants, including PF Chang’s China Bistro, are “growing year over year in sales as more restaurants are added,” said Steve Ewbank, executive vice president of Planned Community Developers, whose properties include Sugar Land Town Square and Lake Pointe Town Center.

Tilman Fertitta, chairman and CEO of Landry’s Restaurants, said his “signature restaurants” in Houston, which include La Griglia, Pesce and Grotto, are “doing fine.” While a few other local Landry restaurants have dipped in business, these brands are doing better here than in cities outside of Texas, Fertitta said.

At Beaver’s, a 14-month-old restaurant and bar that serves dishes like buffalo meatloaf, a po’boy sandwich stuffed with coleslaw and shellfish, and barbecue, January was the best month ever, managing partner Jon Deal said.

“The economy is working in our favor,” said Deal. “More and more people want a medium-sized, chef-created meal in a casual setting.”

david.kaplan@chron.com

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