The dire headlines are all too familiar by now: The housing bubble has burst. The stock market is tumbling. The price of gas is approaching $4 per gallon. Millions of people have lost their jobs.
It’s belt-tightening time in America, we’re told. Consumers are cutting back on indulgent spending.
So how does one explain what’s going on in Scottsdale, where a dozen high-profile restaurants, many of them upscale, already have opened in 2008 — and many more are on the way?
“Scottsdale, as a luxury brand, grows every year,” says Peter Kasperski, a Valley restaurateur since 1979. “Scottsdale is becoming known as a dining destination, not just here in Arizona but nationally and internationally.”
Kasperski owns three of Scottsdale’s most prominent restaurants — Cowboy Ciao, Sea Saw and Kazimierz World Wine Bar — and plans to open four more this year: Digestif, Mexican Standoff, Shell Shock and Confection.
“I’ve seen it happen in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Now we’re becoming a dining destination,” he says. “I don’t think (world-renowned chefs) Michael Mina or Laurent Tourondel come here without that.”
Last month, Mina opened Bourbon Steak, which offers a 6-ounce Japanese “A5” Kobe filet for $190, at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort. Tourondel opens his own high-end steakhouse, BLT Steak, in June at the Marriott Camelback Inn.
“I don’t think the city needs this many restaurants opening right now,” Kasperski admits. “But I think people are looking to the future.”
GROWING, BUT SLOWING
Gauging the health of Arizona’s restaurant industry depends on how you look at it. Statewide sales are projected to reach $8.4 billion this year, up from $8 billion in 2007.
“People might look at $400 million in growth sales and say, ‘That’s pretty impressive,’ ” says Steve Chucri, president of the Arizona Restaurant Association. “But that’s actually a decrease from previous years.”
According to Chucri, sales grew by about $700 million in 2006 and $600 million in 2007. Still, he points out, Arizona remains the second-fastest-growing state in terms of restaurant sales, behind Nevada.
“The restaurant economy is a real fragile one,” he says. “When people have less income, whether we’re competing with gas prices or whatever, we’re the first one hit.”
That’s what worries Greg Donnally. He’s one of the owners of two popular downtown restaurants, Stingray Sushi and Drift Lounge, who just opened their third, Geisha A Go Go.
“The boom now is a late reaction to what was taking place four or five years ago,” Donnally says. “As a restaurateur, your planning is at least two years out. But the economy seems to spike and dive so quickly now.”
In addition, the industry is dealing with tougher immigration regulations, stricter DUI laws and a minimum-wage increase.
“You’re going to see turnover,” Donnally says. “Weaker operators just won’t survive.”
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS?
The ominous news for other Scottsdale restaurants is that the new ones mostly are attention-drawing concepts with deep pockets behind them.
Kasperski’s Digestif mixes California-Italian cuisine with indie rock attitude. Its beatnik-basement decor includes servers clad in Beastie Boys and Death Cab for Cutie T-shirts, and a music listening booth is planned.
“Even if it goes out in (a) brilliant flare, it’s trying to create something different,” Kasperski says.
Digestif opened Feb. 8 in Old Town. That same day, Estate House, an opulent, mansion-inspired dinner house, launched next door. Two weeks later, Donnally’s Geisha A Go Go, an homage to Japanese pop culture with flashing Pachinko machines and private karaoke rooms, opened about a block away.
“Before, Scottsdale was more mom-and-pop places,” Donnally says. “You didn’t have as many big dollars coming in. Now, just look at all the money being thrown at these places.”
That money is being thrown from ever-greater distances. Trendy London restaurant Roka recently opened its first U.S. spinoff, Roka Akor, in Scottsdale instead of New York or Los Angeles.
“Scottsdale is so diverse, there’s such a melting pot of people here, if you can make it here, you have a good chance of making it nationwide,” Donnally says.
Sprinkles Cupcakes: Beverly Hills-based confectioner opens first Arizona store across from Fashion Square. (March)
Eddie’s House: Chef Eddie Matney hasn’t revealed his concept for former Cook n’ Jack’s space in Old Town. (April)
Grazie Pizzeria Winebar: Old Town hangout opens its second Scottsdale location at DC Ranch. (late spring)
Mexican Standoff: Cowboy Ciao chef Bernie Kantak reinterprets indigenous foods of Mexico and Latin America at SouthBridge. (May)
Autostrata osteria e enoteca: Sol y Sombra chef Aaron May brings casual Italian cuisine to DC Ranch. (May)
REM: James Beard-winning chef Robert McGrath unveils his “neighborhood-friendly” concept in Paradise Valley. (June)
BLT Steak: Steakhouse from celebrity chef Laurent Tourondel supplants Camelback Inn’s Chaparral Room. (June)
Shell Shock: James Beard-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda gives Japanese tavern food a modern makeover at SouthBridge. (July)
Delux: Popular Phoenix burger joint will open a sister location near Scottsdale and Camelback roads. (June or July)
Sushi Roku: Ultra-hip Hollywood import will be only restaurant at downtown’s new W Scottsdale Hotel. (summer)
Confection: Fukuda moves his Sea Saw to SouthBridge, freeing up former space for pastry chef Tracy Dempsey. (late summer)
Mexx Kitchen: Fairmont Scottsdale Princess welcomes trendy Mexican eatery from nightlife entrepreneur Rande Gerber. (September)
J&G Steakhouse: Steakhouse from celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten supplants The Phoenician’s Mary Elaine’s. (Oct. 1)
Leche: May’s third new concept of 2008 promises Basque small plates and Spanish wines in Old Town. (October)
Modern Steak: Sam Fox’s “women-friendly” steakhouse concept opens next to Barney’s at Fashion Square. (early 2009)