An appetite for the daily specialby Paul Best November 1, 2011
Whether you’ve got champagne taste on a beer budget or just love a bargain, the fixed-price lunch is worth seeking out.
FOR nigh on a decade, Greg Patten has been making a beeline at least once a week to Cafe Di Stasio for lunch. He goes there for its renowned fixed-priced special – two courses, a glass of wine and coffee – a deal the bayside Italian dining institution has offered customers seven days a week for 16 years.
Usually, with his partner in tow, Patten will opt for the pasta entree, perhaps a spaghetti with eggplant, from a choice of three starters. He prefers the lighter of three mains, maybe the char-grilled calamari, and washes it down with a glass of chardonnay or pinot noir from Di Stasio’s own Coldstream vineyard, and a Lavazza coffee. All for $35.
”I’m a bit of an Italophile,” says fortysomething Patten, who lives locally and drums for Melbourne band My Friend the Chocolate Cake. ”What I love about Italy is the osteria, the chalkboard out the front with two entrees and two mains and that’s it. I love eating like that – what was fresh in the market that morning. [The Di Stasio lunch] is reminiscent of that.”
In fact, the appeal to Patten is precisely what owner Ronnie Di Stasio was thinking when he introduced his fixed-price menu in 1995: to continue what is a traditional fixture on European cartes.
”In countries like France and Italy, there was always a lunch offer, not so much for tourists but for travelling salesmen who wanted a quality meal at a reasonable price; it’s how the Michelin Guide started,” says restaurant manager Mallory Wall.
Its fixed-price lunch (changed every Tuesday) might have been around longer than most but Cafe Di Stasio is far from alone these days. More and more places are seeing the benefits of offering a set-price deal. After a ring-around of restaurants, many of them fine-dining, , it’s fair to say the lunch deal is entrenched in Melbourne’s eating landscape.
Traditions aside, restaurants see the fixed-priced lunch as an opportunity to drum up business, especially during slower periods. Basically, more bums on seats. ”Times are hard and people are reluctant to spend $120 or $150 a head on a meal when they have a short lunch break,” says Holly Richmond, marketing manager for one-hat Sarti in the city. ”The idea is to get more people through the door.”
It’s also a chance to showcase the joint: introduce people to quality grub and polished service, at an affordable price. ”We offer a two- or three-course table d’hote menu to broaden our demographic and attract more local workers who don’t dine on corporate cards but want lunch in a nice restaurant without blowing the budget,” says Peter Leary, co-owner of Southgate’s Pure South.
It’s not just restaurants, either. Pubs such as the Royal Saxon in Richmond or Middle Park Hotel (with dishes from name chef Paul Wilson) are just as likely to have a fixed-price menu to lure punters through their doors.
As Wall explains, it’s not just about new business but repeat business. ”Someone might start off with the lunch, then return with their partner for dinner,” she says.
”It’s a goodway to taste-test a place before you blow your money on a full-blown dinner,” agrees food blogger Nic Crilly-Hargrave, who hunts down lunch deals a couple of times a month, away from the city in particular, with partner Helen Alexander for their blog, Sharking for Chips and Drinks.
Among his favourites are the Station Hotel’s soup and steak sanger, Tobie Puttock’s The Kitchen Cat, Matteo’s in North Fitzroy and Moonee Ponds’ Fuji Teppanyaki, which does a Sunday lunch for $27 a head.
Generally, these budget lunches provide a choice of two or three courses from a smaller seasonal menu, separate from the a la carte. Pure South’s table d’hote offers two or three courses, using seasonal produce from Tasmania – dishes such as semolina-crusted squid and roasted Huon ocean trout – for $39 and $49 respectively.
Sarti, though, has tried to differentiate itself by presenting a five-course shared stuzzichini degustation lunch for $35 a head (from a list of a dozen or so appetisers such as Flinders Island wallaby carpaccio or kingfish sashimi).
Prices hover around the $35 mark for two courses and $45 for three, although they vary, depending on the make-up of the offer and whether it’s, say, a three-hat or a lower profile suburban restaurant. For instance, atop the Rialto, Vue de Monde has a two-course ”One Hour Lunch” for $60; and Prahran’s Jacques Reymond, which offers only set-course menus, has three for $70 and four for $85.
At the other end, Vasko in Ivanhoe has a two-course menu that may include pasta or risotto for $19.90 (it was bumped up recently from $18 after 13 years). Society, in Bourke Street, does one course for $20, as does the Botanical’s wine store with its dish of the day.
It used to be common that these lunches were accompanied by a glass of wine. But that is increasingly not the case. At Sarti, Vue de Monde and Jacques Reymond, wine is extra. Botanical, Vasko and Society include wine (the latter two also offer coffee or soft drink instead).
Maurice Esposito’s $30 fishes-and-loaves lunch (any two dishes from its regular a la carte menu, albeit smaller portions), at Saint Peter’s in the city and Carlton’s Toofey’s, is for food only. Esposito says workers on their lunch break often abstain. It’s partly why he ditched his $35-with-wine offer about a month ago from Carlton.
It’s not just price. Time is of the essence, too – people are on the hoof, looking for a quick graze, in and out. City restaurants, in particular, have responded with express lunches, promising to turn patrons around within an hour.
”Our express menus are designed for people who don’t have a lot of time and want the choosing done for them … but not forsake a great dining opportunity,” says Joanne Reilly, marketing manager for Made Establishment (owner of the Press Club, PM24, Hellenic Republic, Maha and St Katherine’s). She says the group’s restaurants plan on a 45-minute window for two courses.
Of course, fixed-price lunches don’t have to be scoffed. After all, Di Stasio’s calls its deal the Slow Food Lunch. ”It’s the antithesis of the corporate express lunch,” says Patten, who might tarry at the table for a couple of hours. ”I call it the musician’s slow lunch.”
A few places, such as Sarti and Pure South, don’t run the lunch deals over the busy December period. But Pearl in Richmond, for example, is planning three courses off a cut-down a la carte menu on Mondays and Tuesdays for $48 during December.
Competition for business is also driving many deals. A prime example is Southbank, where many places will make some kind of offer. Four of Crown’s restaurants have two-course lunch promotions seven days a week, which include a side dish and valet parking.
Sosta Cucina, in North Melbourne, battles for lunch trade with a raft of cafes along Errol Street. Owner Maurice Santucci believes his cucina povera (cooking of the poor) menus with its ”extras” – such as white linen and trained waiters – give his restaurant a fighting chance.
In fact, restaurateurs quietly hope diners fork out a little extra on top of the set menu. ”If they don’t spend as much on food, they might be prepared to spend more on a quality wine,” Santucci says.
Esposito says corporate diners might come in for the fishes and loaves but drop $120 on a bottle.
”I never get out of [Di Stasio’s] for $35,” admits Patten, who will often have an aperitif before lunch and a second glass of wine on top of the one with his meal.
The point is that margins are tight. Most places admit making a little money but not a lot. Reilly says Made Establishment chefs work hard to secure the best produce at the best prices for express lunch dishes. Rabih Yanni of The Point says the express lunch ”also provides the kitchen with the ability to sample and try new dishes and techniques”.
Patrice Repellin, owner-chef of Koots Salle a Manger, in Kooyong, removed wine from his lunch special so he could keep a lid on the price. ”I haven’t put prices up in five years,” says Repellin, who used to charge $35 for two courses, wine and coffee. ”I prefer to make it $30 and charge for wine.”
Wall says: ”It’s essential to watch costs closely and manage the deal properly.”
”Restaurateurs can master their own marketing and PR to drive their offerings,” Crilly-Hargrave says.
”A lot of gastropubs, for example, have just caught on to Twitter and are actively promoting deals to drag customers in.”
St Katherine’s in Kew recently introduced a $19.50 two-course bento-style express menu after seeking feedback from its largely female lunchtime demographic – aged between 25 and 50 – who wanted lighter, healthier choices. Clearly, it’s not just financial belt-tightening that’s of interest to diners.
The explosion of daily-deal websites – such as Cudo, LivingSocial and Scoopon – is also providing restaurants with further marketing opportunities but also fuelling savagely discounted lunch deals, some by up to 60 per cent.
Usually, they feature restaurants that are not well known. But even name places are giving them a crack. O’Connell’s in South Melbourne, for instance, tried LivingSocial ”as a bit of an experiment”, offering for a limited time three courses from its a la carte menu plus a bottle of De Bortoli house wine for $69 (normally valued about $170).
”It gave us exposure to a different market, which, given the deal was internet-based, was mainly a younger demographic, people who hadn’t been here before,” says assistant manager Michael Tinney.
For the full article and a list of restaurants that offer deals across the CBD and suburbs, visit: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/restaurants-and-bars/an-appetite-for-the-daily-special-20111031-1mrdh.html
Copyright: Fairfax Media