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Smart Tampa Bay restaurants adjust as diners cut back in recession

This week, my colleague Bob Trigaux wrote that many of the fancier causal dining places around Tampa Bay are having waaaaay too many empty seats — Outback, Bonefish Grill, Fleming's, Roy's and even Cheeseburger in Paradise.

It got me to thinking about my recent dining experiences in Pasco and Hernando counties, and I noticed a difference.

My favorites are pretty darned full, some with waiting lines, even on weekday nights and early evenings.

Perhaps it's because my favorites are smallish and locally owned, with the owner either back in the kitchen chopping vegetables and stirring soup or out front greeting patrons and/or taking orders.

The biggest difference, however, is that the prices of my favorites' menu items are mostly in the single digits, unless you count the 95 or 99 cents after the $5, 6, 7, 8 or 9.

At Carmelita's Mexican Restaurant on Old County Road 54 in Trinity, for example, a family of two adults and two kids can eat well for $30, thanks to the $4.99 kids' plates and lots of adult platters for less than 10 bucks.

The simply wonderful Thai Bistro on Main Street in New Port Richey is comfortably busy, but a server told me that though the diners are still coming, the checks are usually less. People who once ordered the $16.95 duck are now ordering the $8.95 curry or pad Thai, the server said.

Other local restaurant owners had similar stories — but they're okay with that. The hope is that people get in the habit of eating at their places and continue to do so after the recovery (hey, we've got to believe a recovery is on the way, or why eat at all?).

Juan de Sosa, who owns the popular Juan's Black Bean Cafe in downtown New Port Richey, is going one step further. He's doing a makeover on his menu, eliminating the pricey steaks on the dinner menu and creating what he calls an "all-day menu." This means that in a couple of weeks, the modestly priced lunches and sandwiches currently only on the lunch list will be on the night menu.

He's also making many items a la carte, so if you want just the 6-inch pressed Cuban sandwich, you aren't forced to buy rice and beans you might not want. That Cuban will be $5.49, with a choice of nine different sides for $1.79 to $2.99.

Juan is also doing what a lot of restaurants are doing these days: making bread a menu item at a small cost. This keeps down waste — you'd be surprised at the number of people who don't eat bread, even if it's offered free — and increases revenue.

He might also eliminate the live bands on the patio during warm weather. After all, you have to sell a lot of $5.49 sandwiches to pay several hundred dollars for a band. And there's no guarantee a band will bring in more diners. (In truth, live bands sometimes drive away people who prefer to converse in normal tones while they eat.)

Juan stresses that the recipes will remain exactly what they have always been, namely, the ones he brought from his native Cuba. It's just that the most expensive plate on the menu will be $13.99, with most hovering around $8, $10 and $12, instead of $26.

As with all businesses these days, innovative thinking, good value and hard work are the keys to survival.

'Evita' will return to Richey Suncoast stage

Has it really been 16 years since Richey Suncoast Theatre did Andrew Lloyd Webber's riveting musical Evita? And did it so well that it sold out 10 performances?

Well, she's baaa--aack, this time from Feb. 25 to March 14, 2010, one of three musicals and two Ray Cooney comedies scheduled for the next Richey Suncoast season.

When Evita was announced at the opening night of Crazy for You on Thursday, there was an audible sigh of approval from the audience. People love the music, and the many plum roles usually attract good performers to the auditions.

Word is that Paul Gibson will try for the lead male role of Che, the narrator, though I'm sure others will show up. Gibson was the mesmerizing Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha in the 2007-08 production and won the Tommy Award for Best Actor in a Musical for Chess that year. He drew a packed house when he was a guest performer at the Thursday Musicale's 40th anniversary last year.

Longtimers will remember that a rookie named Jim Kelly played the troubadour Magaldi in the May 1993 version of Evita. Yes, the same James Martin Kelly who moved to Hollywood and has appeared in scores of television and feature films, including Dexter, W., Criminal Minds, Ocean's Thirteen, My Name is Earl, Crossing Jordan, was Chief Duffy in NYPD Blue, Billy Bob Jackson in Walker, Texas Ranger, and appeared in countless commercials (love those residuals).

The rest of the season is: the musical Li'l Abner (Sept. 10-27); the 10th anniversary edition of A Pasco Christmas (Nov. 27-Dec. 6); Ray Cooney's Run for Your Wife (Oct. 22-Nov. 8); Cooney's Funny Money (Jan. 14-31, 2010) (yes, the same one made into the 2006 Chevy Chase movie); and the Kevin Bacon dance vehicle Footloose (May 13-30, 2010).

Season tickets are $60 for the five regular shows or $70 for those five plus the Christmas special. Current ticket holders have until 2:30 p.m. May 31 to retain their current seats; after that, all seats are available.

Smart Tampa Bay restaurants adjust as diners cut back in recession 02/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 7:55pm]
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