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IN a climate where almost every restaurant in town is offering deals and concessions once unimaginable - bring your own wine to Alto, leave the tie home for '21' - one place is offering the ultimate bargain this Friday night:
Eighty one, chef/owner Ed Brown's pricey modern-American place in the Excelsior Hotel on West 81st Street, is launching a two-course menu option six nights a week that's cheaper than some of the regular entrees alone.
And to get the ball rolling, it's giving 150 customers a chance - for one night only - to sample the new, "eco(nomy)-friendly" menu on the house. (See box.)
"We're changing with the times," Brown acknowledged. "We need to do much more business. I've got to have more people in the restaurant and make it more accessible."
The bargain deal goes into effect on Friday and will be available indefinitely after that every night but Saturday. It offers a choice of any two courses chosen from among appetizers, mains and dessert on a special menu for $30.81 per head, not including tax and tip. A third course can be had for just $8.10. This, in a place where entrees alone run from $28 to $38.
There are four choices in each category. Among them: pumpkin risotto with toasted pumpkin seeds to start; seared tuna with black beluga lentils for an entrée; and bourbon vanilla ice cream float with ginger snaps for dessert.
Friday happens to mark eighty one's first anniversary. It has not been an easy first year for the plush, red velvet-accented restaurant which, for my money, serves the Upper West Side's best food ever.
It opened with a menu even more expensive than it is now. Rave reviews - including my own - were mixed with write-ups that found it either pretentious or, contrarily, not sufficiently cutting-edge (for some, beautifully composed dishes made from marvelous raw materials and merely tasting wonderful will never be enough).
The blessing of a Michelin star last fall was blunted by the financial meltdown. And since day one, eighty one's entire façade has been buried under a low-slung sidewalk bridge that hides the entrance and negates a welcoming glow from behind mullioned windows.
If you think that's no big deal, recall that Simon Oren, owner of popular spots including Nice Matin nearby, sold his lease at Charolais in TriBeCa last year when a scaffold showed no sign of being taken down - "I think no one knew we even opened," Oren said. "If you open with a scaffold, it's a huge handicap, and the low-hung ones that kill visibility are the worst."
Like many newer restaurants, eighty one has been busy on Fridays and Saturdays, but slower on other nights. To remedy that, Brown recently augmented the dinner menu with a mid-priced entree category called "Simply," featuring such favorites as whole daurade ($26) and hanger steak ($27), each served with a choice of a side dish.
But how can a restaurant that spends as much on ingredients as eighty one does make money on a $30.81, two-course dinner menu?
"Two ways," Brown said. "We're not using filet mignon or foie gras.
"And we're hoping that if you come as a party of four, at least one or more of you will order off the regular menu."
So, does that mean the waiter won't mind if we split up our orders between the standard menu and the cheap one?
"Be clear," Brown chuckled. "If you come to eighty one, the answer to almost anything is 'yes.' This is a time for extreme hospitality."
How to eat for free
This Friday only, the first 150 customers whose seats are reserved by e-mail for eighty one's eco(nomy)-menu will be served the two-course, $30.81 option for free. (Diners must pay for all drinks, tax and tip.) The complimentary offer does not apply to the regular menu.
There are two seatings, at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and a four-person maximum per table.
Those vying for the complimentary menu must contact the restaurant by e-mail only at firstname.lastname@example.org.
45 W. 81st St.