The Fancy Dining Barometer

During the early 2000s, capital flourished, Wall Street prospered and it was hard to get reservations at top New York restaurants, except months in advance; today, as capital flows contract, and finance is paralyzed, you can get reservations at some of the best New York restaurants with a mere one week’s notice—or less.

In that earlier period, you could get reservations at any restaurant in Washington DC less than a month in advance, and at many on shorter notice. Today, top DC restaurants are booked solid, no tables available—at least not until late January, after President-elect Obama is inaugurated.

What gives? Probably some version of C + I + G, part of the famous Keynes/Samuelson formula defining aggregate economic demand as the sum of consumption, investment, and government spending. In a simplified picture of the US today, I happens in New York; G happens in Washington; and C happens nationwide.

Earlier this decade, I was the biggest factor in the formula and you had to wait months for a reservation at Manhattan’s revered Gramercy Tavern. Now, with the New York Stock Exchange reeling while Congress lets the US Treasury dole out nearly a trillion dollars—and Congress discusses handing out more—G is the big factor in the formula, and you have to call months in advance for a table at West End’s Blue Duck Tavern.

Between Wall Street’s I and K Street’s G, of course, is C, the consumption component of the formula, the ultimate reality measure, capturing what’s going on in America, beyond New York and Washington. Today, the answer is not much. In all but a few big cities, Americans can get a reservation anywhere, today for tonight. But, alas, outside the Beltway and the Apple, many are eating tuna fish sandwiches at home.

An old quip says a recession occurs when your neighbor is out of work; a depression occurs when you are out of work. Hundreds of millions of people—including those in Manhattan—know that the United States is in a serious economic vise. But you would never know that here in Washington DC (at least not in the northwest quadrant of this city), where restaurants catering to the lobbying crowd are packed, and money flows freely.

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