Two years ago, chef Matt McLinn was serving diners roast lobster and basil-fed snails. Now, he's flipping $10 burgers.
The economic crisis sank his Scottsdale fine-dining restaurant, Methode Bistro, in 2008 along with many other upscale restaurants across the country. So now, he has gone from fancy dining to french fries.
One-third of American adults haven't visited a fine-dining restaurant in the past year, according to a March survey by consumer-research firm Mintel. Price is trumping all other considerations. In a time of social and financial uncertainty, diners want food that is familiar and affordable.
Across the Phoenix metropolitan area, acclaimed chefs are responding to those changes, both in tastes and price. They are shuttering elegant, upscale restaurants to open more affordable, neighborhood ventures.
The result for diners is better eating at lower prices. With a limited budget, a high-end chef can take a basic hamburger and enhance it with heirloom tomatoes and locally grown greens or serve a never-frozen, free-range chicken that goes from farm to restaurant table in less than 24 hours.
McLinn, a 25-year veteran of fine dining, opened the Grind, a burger joint and bar in Phoenix's Arcadia neighborhood in March. He said his move to casual dining is a sign of the times.
Affordability was always the plan for the Grind, said McLinn, whose last post was at BLT Steakhouse, the flagship restaurant at the AAA five-diamond-rated Camelback Inn in Paradise Valley. But for McLinn, serving cheaper food doesn't mean cutting cooking corners.
He cooks his burgers in a 1,000-degree, coal-fired oven, giving his burgers a flavorful, distinctive crust. His techniques earned the Grind a nod from Bon Appetit magazine as one of the country's 10 best new burger joints.
"I do the same, if not nicer, cooking techniques on my burgers that (BLT) does on their steaks," McLinn said.
Chef Nobuo Fukuda also saw maintaining his expert kitchen techniques as key to the transition from fine to casual dining when he opened a lunch-and-dinner spot in downtown Phoenix in July.
"Anyone can do beautiful fish and make beautiful dishes," he said. "But we need to have the same wow effect without the expensive, high-end ingredients."
The chef still brings in seasonal fish from Japan, but he uses local produce instead of importing sophisticated ingredients.
Fukuda came from Sea Saw, a tiny Japanese restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale, where guests once spent hundreds of dollars on exquisite dishes like foie gras sushi. But in 2008, after watching the economy spiral and business begin to slow down, he wanted to make a change.
"We all had a little regret and a little guilt. Who could spend that kind of money now?" said Fukuda, who won a 2007 James Beard Award, often called the Academy Award of cooking.
The new Nobuo at the Teeter House is in a small, historic building across from Pizzeria Bianco, home to fellow James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Bianco.
The restaurant is modeled after a Japanese izakaya, a place to meet for casual drinking and light dining. Fukuda's small-plate menu includes items such as Hama Hama oysters and coconut-curry-marinated lamb from $6 to $20.
Up in the Arcadia neighborhood, acclaimed chef Justin Beckett is living the transition.
In 2007, he was running Canal at SouthBridge, a conspicuous restaurant known as much for hosting fashion shows on its dining-room runway as it was for its cutting-edge menu. Since then, Beckett's life and the economy have changed.
His soon-to-open Beckett's Table will be the antithesis of Canal - a family-friendly neighborhood restaurant with bourguignon pot pie and grilled cheese. The average entree will run less than $20.
Although the country seems to be recovering from the worst of the recession, fine dining is not bouncing back.
Mintel research shows that, over the next two years, the fine-dining market will grow 0.5 to 2.1 percent, following less than 1 percent growth in 2009.