NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York's vaunted restaurant scene is in for some lean times, according to the newest Zagat survey released on Tuesday, with price hikes coming at a time when diners say they are eating out less often and spending less in the face of dire economic conditions.
"Restaurants are clearly feeling the pinch from the economic crisis," said Tim Zagat, founder of the survey now in its 30th year which bases its food, decor and service ratings for some 2,000 restaurants on feedback from restaurant patrons.
But he added that the industry would weather the hard times, just as it did following the 1987 stock market crash and the September 11 attacks.
The pullback was not limited to diners, either, the survey found. Restaurant openings declined for the first time since 2003, down to 119 from last year's 163, and 187 just three years ago.
Nearly 40 percent of the survey's 38,000-plus respondents said they were coping with the shaky economy by eating out less often, and by patronizing less expensive restaurants.
All this in a year in which Zagat found prices up 3.3 percent, or far more than the one percent annual hike that prevailed over the past six years. High-end diners were hit even harder, with a nearly 10 percent tab increase.
The average tab in New York was $40.78, still less than the steepest U.S. total of $44.44 in Las Vegas, and far behind other world capitals such as Paris, Tokyo, and even Toronto.
The bracing findings were one explanation for a spate of new burger, pizza and barbecue places that popped up this year, the survey noted. Even celebrity chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened bistros or noodle shops.
Any good news mostly centered around establishments that topped the ratings. Per Se nabbed the top spot for the first time for both food and service, with diners citing an "unforgettable, transcendental gastronomic marathon" -- with an average $303 tab to match.
Momofuku Ko was rated best newcomer, capping a week that saw the restaurants awarded three and two coveted Michelin stars, respectively.
The ratings cellar was once again reserved for theme restaurants like American Girl Place or Hard Rock Cafe, but celebrity hangout Elaine's scraped bottom with even lower marks for service and decor, accompanied by a far higher tab. "A would-be, for has-been," Zagat opined.
Editing by Anthony Boadle