One of the first businesses to feel the effects of the recession that dare not speak its name are the fine dining restaurants that keep the well-heeled well fed. Crikey rang around some fancy eateries in Melbourne and Sydney to check if pheasant sales are down. Sydneysiders as a rule were as tight lipped as their clientele’s wallets, but Melbourne restaurateurs were more amenable to spilling the beans.

The upshot? Long lunches are dead, tip jars are dangerously low and Shannon Bennett’s not talking.

Tim Tehan — Birdman Eating, Fitzroy: Tehan told Crikey that the financial crisis hasn’t affected Birdman but pointed to talk within the industry that patronage at high end restaurants has been lower, particularly those who cater to corporate clientele. Tehan pointed to the late 80s and early 90s and the effect that government policy had on restaurants, particularly not being able to “write off” lunches as tax.

The European, Melbourne: The European acknowledged that there has been a downturn in patronage in the last six weeks, and told Crikey that customers who once went for long dinners are now having petite dining experiences with more emphasis on drinking. The European’s owners have four CBD businesses, and they’ve seen customers spread to their more alcohol orientated venues. They told Crikey they’re yet to change staffing or the menu because of the financial crisis and that the economy hasn’t had any significant detrimental effect before now.

Bar Lourinha, Melbourne: Management confirmed that their lunch trade has suffered, but told Crikey that they’re yet to change staffing and menu because of the financial crisis.

Ginger Boy, Melbourne: Ginger Boy told Crikey that August and September were quiet, and that they’ve seen a loss of regular bankers in the past six weeks as well. They’re yet to change staffing and the menu because of the crisis but they pointed to a new conservatism in “scared” diners.

Cumulus Inc, Melbourne. Cumulus have only been open for five months but they have noticed a downturn in trade. They told Crikey that the financial crisis has effected staffing more than the menu. Cumulus acknowledged that in previous recessions there’s been a wider downturn in trade but at the moment it’s the high end restaurants that are really seeing a difference.

Esposito, Carlton: Maurice Esposito told Crikey that patronage is down 15- 20%, with a particular decline in corporate diners. Esposito remembers the 1990s recession feeling the same and added that for smaller restaurants the juggle between staffing, menu and overheads becomes harder during these periods.

Movida, Melbourne: Movida told Crikey that they hadn’t noticed any difference in numbers through the door, and that they hadn’t made any changes to staffing or the menu.

Stokehouse, St Kilda: Stokehouse management told Crikey that they hadn’t noticed any difference in numbers through the door, and that they hadn’t made any changes to staffing or the menu.

Vue De Monde, Melbourne: Vue De Monde (and Shannon Bennett) declined to comment “on anything to do with the financial crisis.”

Tetsuya’s, Sydney: Tetsuya’s management told Crikey that they hadn’t noticed any difference in numbers through the door, and that they hadn’t made any changes to staffing or the menu.

Traci Trinder owner of italian trattoria Buzo, Woollahra: A trattoria is a place for tough times. People are looking for value. We are lucky to have a great loyal customer base so things are going very well. There are definitely more corporate Christmas functions being booked with us which I imagine would have gone to fine dining establishments around town in more prosperous times. It’s business as usual and baton down the hatches for the first quarter next year…full steam ahead.

Becasse, Sydney: Becasse confirmed to Crikey that fine dining has been hit. The restaurant said lunches have been hit particularly hard and there has been a decline in corporate clientele. And most importantly, people haven’t been as generous with tips.  Becasse have made no changes to staffing or menu as yet, but management do remember fine dining being hit in a similar way in the early 1990’s.

Robert Marchetti owner, Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, North Bondi Italian Food and Giuseppe Arnaldo and Sons: Marchetti told Crikey “…when there is a downturn in spending people automatically become more selective so it has never been more important for the product to be strong. We are trading really well. We give good value for money.”

Are you a restauranteur or a long luncher from way back who’s feeling the pinch?

Email your Real Economy anecdotes to [email protected].

Peter Fray

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