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Haute Anxiety

As the nation's economic boom sputters to an end, New York's restaurateurs wonder if they can take the heat.

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Has this economic downturn got New York off its feed? That's the question that's been obsessing New York's multibillion-dollar restaurant industry over the past couple of months. "This time last year, restaurants were busy every night," says John Schenk, the recently deposed chef of Clementine, which opened three years ago, just in time to reap the rewards of the boom. Now, however, the signs have turned ominous -- and Schenk has headed for Vegas, where he'll man a restaurant at the Bellagio casino. "First, Mondays got soft," he says, "then Mondays and Tuesdays. Now it's Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays."

Things are just as bad uptown. One wicked rumor had a venerated 180-seater with four stars and a celebrity chef serving just 40 customers on the first Friday of January. "Those numbers inspire your better waiters to look for new jobs," quips the manager of a theater-district restaurant, who admits he's selling more liquor these days than wine -- a sure sign, he says, of budget-conscious dining.

"Business is going to stay slow if people notice a difference in their 401(k)'s," says Michael Whiteman, president of the company that owns Windows on the World. "Last year, we were all worrying about the stock market. This year, the layoffs have started. That makes everybody think twice about dinner."

Still, well into January, restaurants like Pico, Lotus, and Tao continue to open -- and there are almost a half-dozen more on the way. And that's far too many restaurants for all to survive.

No one wants to say the word crash yet. But there's considerable unanimity as to how a recession might affect the restaurant biz. Established eateries with high check averages, like Le Bernardin and Gramercy Tavern, might bruise but can easily survive a downturn. It's the often underfinanced little guys that have big reason to worry -- both Spartina and Lobster Club, for example, are rumored to be on the block.

But still, industry veterans persist. Patroon's Ken Aretsky is set to open 92, an American brasserie. And Jerry Kretchmer, partner in Gotham, Bolo, JUdson Grill, and Mesa Grill, expects to open a fifth restaurant before summer's end. "We opened Mesa Grill the night George W.'s old man dropped the first bombs on Baghdad," boasts Kretchmer, who insists almost all of his restaurants are healthy. "The winter of 1992 -- now, that was a recession."


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