Oct. 4, 2012 at 10:30 AM ET
Put down your forks and listen to this: New Yorker's at-home meals surpassed dining out for the first time in 30 years. That's the news from the Zagat 2013 NYC Restaurant Survey.
It said the citizens of the city that bills itself as the "food capital of the world" are only dining out and doing take-out 6.4 times a week, and they're making meals at home 6.7 times a week. That means more family pasta nights, and bagged lunches taken to work, and fewer trips to Per Se and Peter Luger's.
For the past 10 years, New Yorkers have gradually been eating out less and eating in more, but this year marks the first time that the two trends have crossed over. In 2002, New Yorkers made 5.1 meals at home and ate out or got take out 7.9 times per week. In 2006 that moved to 5.4 and 7.7. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, eating out took an immediate hit, dropping to 6.9 times per week. Meals at home jumped to 6.1 times per week.
In addition, the number of meals per survey per restaurant - an indicator of how many times diners return to their favorite eatery - rose from 9.6 in 2002 to 11.1 in 2008, then fell off to 8.5 in 2009, and declined to 8.1 in 2012. As the country's fortunes rise, so does its appetite for eating out. And vice versa.
But it's not just New York City, eating fewer meals out is a national trend. The NPD market research group reported in October that traffic to casual dining restaurants is down 2 percent this first quarter across the country, while visits to midscale restaurants is down 3 percent. That's in line with a four-year downward trend.
However, Tim Zagat, co-founder of the burgundy restaurant guide, told NBC News he's "not sure that it's more penny-wise to cook at home." There's a big opportunity cost to consider "once you factor in shopping, washing, cooking and cleaning." Instead, he said, budget-conscious diners might be "better off working an hour later -- assuming you have a job."
With persistently high unemployment figures in the headlines, that could be a big assumption. Still, he doesn't deny that New York restaurants have had to change with the times, and the recession, to keep their appeal.
"There isn't a restaurant in New York that still requires a tie," Zagat said. While some high-end joints like Le Bernardin still require men to wear a jacket, "If you put it over the back of your chair in the middle of dinner, they're not going to tell you to put it back on. Ten years ago taking your jacket off in a fine dining establishment would have been unthinkable."
Relaxing those standards means broadening your customer base, and that means being slightly more accessible to younger, more casual clientele, with lower purchasing power.
That's why Zagat sees what he calls "Better Alternative to Home" or "BATH" restaurants as a huge saving trend for the industry. They're the noodle shops, burger joints, BBQs, upscale diners, family style chains and ethnic eateries offering hardy fare and comfy and cozy atmosphere, "like having a second living room." They buy wholesale and, he and his wife wrote in a 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed on the effect of a bad economy on the restaurant business, "produce meals far more efficiently than home cooks."
Affordable and casual restaurants dominated the list of 199 new restaurant openings included in the Zagat 2013 NYC restaurant survey. 399 of the overall listings offered a complete dinner, including beverage to wash it down and tip for the waiter, for less than $25.
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