Dining Deals

Culinary Schadenfreude Comes to Houston

scha·den·freu·de [shahd-n-froi-duh]
satisfaction or pleasure derived from the misfortune of others

I'm going to get to the point of this post right now: My life as a food lover is better because the economy is in a recession.

There I said it.

And before you label me as some kind of foodie recession profiteer, I can assure you I'm actually trying to do the right thing. Let me explain.

Across the country restaurants are struggling. New York City is especially hard hit. Houston not so much, but for those restaurants still open on Sundays and Mondays the pickin's are often slim -- half-empty dining rooms and expansive bars where the staff outnumber the patrons.

Sure most popular high-end Houston restaurants are still doing a bang-up business towards the weekend. But casual diners seem to be taking a break after that, leading to an unfortunate drop in business on Sundays and Mondays. Lunch also seems to be a time when consumers are pulling back -- brown-bagging it rather than heading out to a restaurant.

All of these circumstances have conspired to create an economic climate that is perhaps unfortunate for restaurants, but very attractive indeed for food lovers. Several Houston restaurants have implemented early-week and lunch discounts that are incredible values. At the very least, any Joe Schmo diner can walk in to Houston's best restaurants on a Sunday or Monday and be whisked to a table to be fawned over by appreciative and tip-starved wait staff.

Believe it or not, my intentions are not completely selfish. Patronizing Houston restaurants on their slow nights is the right thing to do. I'm quite happy to eat at Luby's on Friday and Saturday night (see below) and then patronize other presumably high-end restaurants on Sundays and Mondays when they need the business. It is, as they say, a win-win deal.

Below are some suggestions about how you -- the food lover -- can get your piece of the recession pie and help out local restaurants at the same time. Make sure you contact these establishments prior to a visit to confirm deal availability and pricing.

Haute Cuisine

Cullen's Upscale American Grill offers $49.95 All-You-Can-Eat (AYCE) Lobster every Monday night. Even with the inexpensive lobster, this is still a win-win deal. Most diners will order a few sides and a glass of wine (or three) which will push the price point closer to $100 per person. Even at this price, AYCE lobster is still a good deal for the diners too.

So Vino Wine Bar is legendary for its 1/2 price bottles of wine every Monday night (on bottles $125 or less). The deal has even gained national recognition. Again, this may be a loss leader to get warm bodies into the restaurant where they will (presumably) spend money on a full dinner or the imminently noshable bar food while sipping the great wine deal.

t'afia Restaurant attacks the recession from multiple angles. The Friday $22 prix-fixe lunch is one of the best deals in town. You get a three course menu of seasonal and local ingredients which changes every week. Then on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings there are free appetizers with the purchase of a cocktail. And if you still haven't had enough, you can visit the Midtown Farmer's Market every Saturday morning to pick up some local produce and take in a free cooking lesson from Monica Pope herself. Get there early!

Not-So-Haute Cuisine

Luby's has taken the bizarro world approach to discounting. Instead of providing deals on Sundays and Mondays or at lunch, their deal is on Friday and Saturday nights. And what a deal it is. The venerable Lu Ann platter is offered half price after 4:30pm for dine-in only through the end of February. Let's see if they extend it.

Prima Pasta is offering their self-professed "best lasagna in town" for $5.99 during lunch and dinner 7 days a week. It's a great alternative to a fast food meal which would cost as much or more.

Chili's locations throughout Houston are offering an Express Lunch Deal for $6.79 which includes AYCE chips and salsa, soup and salad.

Recession? What Recession?

Some Houston restaurants show little sign of bowing to recessionary pressures.

Todai Houston's Chef Mark Shim isn't cutting back during the recession, he's expanding. He recently installed a pricey Enomatic Wine Serving System that allows wines served by the glass to always be perfectly fresh. He combines that with a few recession deals of his own, including a free glass of wine with adult buffet on Mondays, and a kids-eat-free deal on Thursday.

Textile Restaurant continues to offer its decadent 7 course tasting menu for $115 per person with a wine pairing option for an additional $75. By all appearances demand remains strong. Closed Sunday and Monday.

The Tasting Room Wine Cafe has partnered with Gourmet magazine to offer a whopper $250 wine dinner and next-day brunch at their Reserve Room in the Uptown Park location on April 4, 2009. As anyone who has visited The Tasting Room knows, this is a classy outfit and the event should be well worth the extra coin if you have it. I've not yet dined at The Reserve Room so I can't personally vouch for it, but by all accounts Chef Steve Super does a great job.

---J.C. Reid
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J.C. Reid
Contact: J.C. Reid