One downtown restaurant has been serving elegant food for 17 years.
Another offers jazz with your meal.
A third anchors a downtown hotel.
Yet another offers a fusion of Asian- and American-style cuisine.
One could expect to find this range of restaurants in the heart of New York City, Chicago or
L.A. But they’re all in the South Bend area. And although everyone says the country may be
in a recession, these upscale restaurants are all surviving somehow.
From menu changes to relying on patrons, each place has its own special offering that keeps customers coming back.
LaSalle Grill proprietor Mark McDonnell said his restaurant has felt a decrease in attendance since the fall.
"There were signs of a recession, but moreover, we started to talk ourselves into one," McDonnell said. "Now we’re in a time where people really don’t want to spend money."
Nat Buraprateep, owner of Club Noma, says he feels the crunch of increasing food prices, but attendance numbers are still consistent.
“People don’t have three to five days to spend time and money to go on a vacation," Buraprateep said. “But people can come here to escape and rest for a few hours. They can enjoy the atmosphere and have a minivacation.”
Barry Keating, professor of finance at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of
Notre Dame, said this pattern of restaurant eating dates back 20 years.
"Apparently Americans like to eat out," Keating said. "They cut back but not that much. The
number of people going to restaurants is still increasing, but it’s just not increasing by much."
A few restaurants are attempting to change dishes in order to keep their prices stable. Buraprateep said the price of jasmine rice has almost doubled in the past year and he is using more vegetables as a substitute for rice on the menu.
LaSalle Grill has decided to join the new trend of growing its own produce.
"It’s a two-way effect," McDonnell said. "Growing our own produce will stabilize pricing, and it offers fresh, healthier food."
While LaSalle Grill and Noma are adjusting to keep menu prices stable, representatives of Trio’s Restaurant and Jazz Club and Volte Restaurant and Lounge say their establishments have not felt the economic downturn hurting their attendance or menus.
Herb Wilson, co-owner of Trio’s Restaurant and Jazz Club, said that eating out is an essential part of the American lifestyle.
"Our business has been doing very well," Wilson said. "Guests are able to maintain their living, and our prices are reasonable."
Wilson thinks South Bend can easily sustain these upscale restaurants.
Americans can drop their food expenses by two thirds just by eating at home, Notre Dame’s
But some think people appear to prefer spending money on the dining and entertainment.
Brian Black, owner of Volte, also a fairly new restaurant to downtown, said he has seen the
effect of the downturn in the times per week people go out to eat, but his restaurant still has
"This is a different style of town," Black said. "It’s not like San Francisco, New York City or
Chicago. People don’t wait anxiously for new places to come."
Black said he would never cut corners in the kitchen.
"South Bend is a food-forward city," Black said. "People aren’t foreign to good food and would know if we were cutting corners."
Volte does have an advantage because it’s located in the Holiday Inn Hotel. Black said the built-in revenue that comes with the hotel, along with weddings, business parties and banquets, keeps Volte busy.
No matter what goes on in the kitchen, none of these upscale restaurants would ultimately survive without the loyal following of South Bend customers.
Tony and Judy Campisi have been eating at Noma since it first opened.
“These new places have a different flavor,” Tony Campisi said. “That’s why we come back.”
A native of South Bend, Judy Campisi described the new restaurants as a dining experience, rather than just another place to eat.
“These places represent change,” Judy Campisi said. “They offer a specific type of food that’s not plain old American food.”
And how would South Bend businesses carry on without their college audience?
John Donovan, a graduating Notre Dame senior from Chicago, said that he would gladly spend the extra dollars for good food.
“It’s what I’m used to,” Donovan said. “I always go out and spend my money on either a good restaurant or good food at the store.”
Donovan thinks these restaurants can easily survive just on the college students that live off-campus.
“Any student has the budget to go out to dinner to one of these nice restaurants,” Donovan said. “They just have to be willing to give up a few cases of Keystone.”
There is also something to say about the working couple who lack the time to cook.
“Especially with a new baby, we always need a night out,” Paul Berrettini said. “Of course we would spend the money for good service, good food and a good atmosphere.”
The value of a night out to some customers is worth more than spending the extra money.
With the summer months almost here, restaurant owners know it will be a slow time compared to the football and holiday seasons.
Buraprateep expects the summer months to be slow.
“Lunch might pick up a bit, but dinner most likely won’t,” he said.
Trio’s Wilson said he is very optimistic about summer months and plans to open an outdoor café soon.
Even though budgets may be tight, it seems the upscale restaurants are all discovering ways to keep their customers raving and coming back.
“There aren’t a lot of places you can go to get food like this,” Tony Campisi said. “You don’t want to go to the places that have been here forever because the new places are so much more appealing.”