Sunday, April 22, 2007

A separate piece

A key feature of Ruth’s Chris’ “new generation” of steakhouse is what the chain calls its luxury lounge, a distinct area with an emphasis on “comfort” and “leisure,” in the company’s words. The notion of the place-within-a-place was hatched back in 2004, Ruth’s notes. But it’s no wonder the high-end chain is emphasizing the area as a cornerstone of its new look. The luxury lounge and similar concepts-within-a-concept are emerging as a mini trend-within-a-trend. Or two trends, actually.

About 20 branches of the arch-rival Morton’s chain now sport a Bar 12-21, a watering hole carved out of the restaurant, with its own identity and menu. Plans call for outfitting 15 more restaurants with the sub-brand, which Morton’s cited as a reason for its 6.7 percent comp-sales gain for the last three months of 2006.

Meanwhile, untold numbers of independents who rode the cigar craze of 10 years ago now find themselves with a distinct, sometimes even sealed-off lounge area. A match may no longer be set to panatela, but business is still smoking. Patrons seem to relish a high-energy but less-expensive sister to the posh mother ship that may be out of their price range as a regular haunt.

Even blues god B.B. King is feeling the mojo. His club in New York features a bar completely separate from his diner-theater main room. It’s named after his guitar, Lucille, and even offers its own line-up of entertainment.

It’s easy to see why the Mini-in-a-Rolls concept is catching on. For reasons that have not been adequately explained, consumers are abandoning moderately priced mid-market favorites, but still finding the bucks for higher-end options, especially luxury steakhouses. The parent of Outback Steakhouse is slipping vitamins and Chinese herbs to its mainstay brand to pep it up, but its Fleming’s big-ticket steakhouse chain is chugging. Ditto for Capital Grille, the white-gloves brand in the portfolio of LongHorn parent Rare Hospitality. Is it any wonder that the newest venture from Outback daddy OSI is the Champagne-budget Blue Corral seafood concept? It’s a definite trend.

It’s easy to see why the restaurant companies are welcoming that veer in the market. If you’re paying the same for a location whether it serves $40 steaks or $8 fajitas, why not go for the bigger ticket? The problem is maintaining traffic at those levels.

And that’s where the new sub-concepts can help. A distinct bar within higher-end places becomes a viable option for persons who can’t swallow a big ticket every night. They’re a stepping stone to posh.

Plus, for those of us who’d prefer a more casual setting at any price, we suddenly have a recourse that won’t draw sneers from our friends with upward-pointing noses.

The other trend in which the new sub-concepts nest is the second surge in Cary Grant-style drinking. The resurgence of the martini and cosmo gave cocktail culture a big boost a few years ago. Now the bar is being rediscovered yet again, not only as a source of those pleasers, but also because of whiskeys, gins, infusions, new margaritas, finer wines, pricey cordials, and even non-alcoholics made with fresh-squeezed juices and fruit. (Two of my younger colleagues recently were comparing notes about favored drinking establishments, and both lauded an establishment each for the quality of the fruit that accompanied their cocktails).

Couple that reignited interest in drinks with the boom of better bar bills of fare, and you have cocktail culture giving way to lounge culture.

Not every place may see the benefit of positioning the lounge as a separate entity, complimentary to but distinct from the restaurant housing it. But it’s something that will likely become more common as current trends continue.

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