• Metro Detroit Restaurants Challenge Tough Times

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    Kate Lawson / Detroit News Food Writer

    The economy is serving up more bad news to local restaurants. Laffrey’s Steaks on the Hearth in Detroit will sear the last hand-cut beef on its famous grill on New Year’s Eve.

    After 40 years as a mainstay for prom dates and special occasions, owner Sandy Thompson said the long-standing destination is closing because “we can’t compete with the lower-end restaurants. People still want to go out, they just don’t have the money to spend.”

    Thompson has owned the restaurant since 1990, and her son, Darin, is the executive chef. “We tried to go with discounts, but we’re a high-end restaurant, and we couldn’t sacrifice quality for price.”

    Laffrey’s is the latest in a string of Metro Detroit restaurants with financial strife in 2009. The award-winning Tribute in Farmington Hills tried to reinvent itself with lower prices, lunch, brunch, live music and casual patio seating, but no tweaks could change its high-end perception, and it closed in September after 13 years.

    Restaurateurs have heaped on incentives such as deejays, live entertainment, high tea and casino nights. They have also reduced prices, slimmed down portions, created nightly specials and even changed their names in an effort to build up customer loyalty.

    Some, such as Matt Prentice, have sold their businesses to stay afloat. Prentice sold the Bingham Farms-based Matt Prentice Restaurant Group to attorney Stanley Dickson Jr. while still running the operations.

    “I don’t have to tell you that our economy in Michigan is at its worst, and we’re the worst in the entire country,” said Andy Deloney, vice president of public affairs for the Lansing-based Michigan Restaurant Association. “Restaurants have had to stay sharp, be on their toes and be flexible about consumer demands.”

    Change is necessary

    For some, reinvention seems to be working. The Zinc Brasserie and Wine Bar in West Bloomfield Township became the Redcoat Tavern (a sister of the popular Redcoat Tavern in Royal Oak); Larco’s in Troy transformed into the Big Beaver Tavern with a bar-friendly menu and poker  nights; and chef/owner Brian Polcyn closed Five Lakes Grill in Milford, which was losing customers, and reopened it as the value-friendly Mexican restaurant Cinco Lagos (that’s “Five Lakes” in Spanish).

    “I’m guardedly optimistic,” said Mark Larco, owner of Big Beaver Tavern, who made the change after sagging sales. “We thought it was time to reinvent, re-energize and wanted to try something new. I’d say  is up 35-40 percent now.”

    Trading Zinc Brasserie and Wine Bar’s hip vibe for the more relaxed name and menu of the Redcoat Tavern has worked for Mark and Matthew Brown, who also own the Redcoat Tavern in Royal Oak. They kept many of the successful menu items created by chef Michael Trombley but added more casual offerings.

    “Our prices are the same, it’s the perception that has changed,” he said.

    Polcyn said this year was extremely tough for business, so making the drastic change to Mexican fare has been great. “We served 2,200 dinners our first week and average about 1,800 dinners a week now. My best week at Five Lakes was 700 dinners — that should tell you something.”

    Meanwhile, some fine-dining establishments such as The Lark in Farmington Hills are holding strong, wavering from neither the menu nor the price.

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