The restaurant business is changing, but so slowly that unless you look carefully, you may not notice. It's like the last big shift, 10 years ago, that took most of us by surprise until it finally became too obvious to miss. That was when Gary Bialorucki, the last manager of the long-popular Willows, put it into a simple statement: "People just want to go to more casual eating places," he said. "They don't want to dress up for dinner."
Whether one is for what's happening now, against it, or on the fence, it's hard to deny that it promises to be of much greater consequence than simply a matter of formal or casual. It is a shift in whether we drink alcohol when we go out to eat, and if so, what. The answer to that question can affect traffic safety and law enforcement, the worldwide alcoholic beverage industry, and the art and economics of restaurant management.
One sign of this change and the direction it's taking appears ever more commonly on or with a restaurant menu. It's a wine list. Where not too long ago a customer who asked for wine was handed a short, trite list of very ordinary red, white, and sparkling selections, it's no longer surprising to find as many as 30 or 40 wines on the list at typical roadhouse restaurants like Croy's Supper Club, Cousino's Steak House, and Our Place.
Does it sell more wine? In West Toledo's upscale Charcoal House, table tents advertising a glass of the three most popular California wines - chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon - and merlot, have appeared recently alongside the salt and pepper.
Nodding toward the table tent, I asked a veteran waitress, "When you ask, 'Would you like a drink?' is wine the answer more often these days?"
"Absolutely," she said.
Gus Mancy, one of the first in this area to put a really serious, carefully chosen wine list into a customer's hands, agrees: At Mancy's Steaks, he says, "wine sales are up."
If restaurant guests are drinking more wine, distributors' sales to restaurants are on the rise, too, on the order of 15 to 17 per cent year upon year.
However, distributors point out that given the current prosperity, more of the American food dollar is spent in restaurants and less than used to be in grocery stores; more people are eating out. This means that in part, growing restaurant wine sales come from more customers. Still, people in the business believe that per-capita wine consumption is on the increase.
Why? Many Americans are discovering that a well-chosen wine adds to the pleasure of eating. Pairing Italian cuisine and Italian wines, for example, brings contented customers back to Ciao! and Casa di Maria. Gourmet restaurants, such as Fifi's, J.D. Wesley's Bistro, Georgio's, and Matthew's Creative Cuisine have always as a matter of course suggested wines to go with the dinners they serve. Eileen's Wine Bar at Cousino's Navy Bistro and the lounge in the Real Seafood restaurant next door, though not yet ready to throw away the key to the liquor cabinet, appear to have discovered a rewarding niche, offering light meals designed to be enjoyed with samplings of matching wines. And with a slightly different emphasis, Oregon's Cafe Chez Vin has been exploiting that appeal for some years.
These changes may date from a Sixty Minutes telecast on CBS more than eight years ago, in which newsman Morley Safer interviewed three research scientists on what has come to be known as "the French paradox." They could find no other explanation than moderate daily consumption of table wine with meals to explain why heart disease is much less common in southern Europe than in this country. Research since then tends to confirm these early findings, with significant qualifications - not all kinds of wine, and only moderate consumption. As a result, many Americans are coming to accept a glass of wine with dinner, at home or in a restaurant, as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Robert Kirtland writes a wine column for The Blade.