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Let Them Eat Steak!


Feasting on the bulls with which we ran.


Across the street from where Minyanville has its office and, I swear, exercises best business practices, sits a Smith & Wollensky. Unlike rivals Morton's (MRT) or Ruth's Chris (RUTH), this chain of upmarket steakhouses has, of late, begun advertising on TV. Its newfangled slogan: "If steak were a religion, this would be its cathedral."

For my money, that's a bit of an overstatement. If steak were a religion, come Sundays this so-called cathedral would be filled with the pious and red meat-fearing, not the paunchy and douchey. Many a world would be turned upside down.

But I digress. It was this confluence of factors -- its new advertising campaign and proximity to where I work -- that convinced me Smith & Wollensky, which traded publicly before being acquired by Patina Restaurant Group in 2007, was ripe for review.

I tried to enlist a friend, usually reliable concerning affairs of the stomach, to accompany me. But when I invited him to join, he responded, rhetorically, "Who can afford it?"

The ease with which the refrain rolled off his tongue gave me pause, because he most certainly can. Afford it, that is.

"Who can afford it?"-- which gains in popularity when the chips are down and so is building steam now -- on the surface implies that the asker can't when he almost assuredly can. The collective "who" in "who can afford it?" has far less potency than it does when it makes a cameo in "Who wants that?" or "Who cares?" In those instances, he who asks the question is invariably including himself, because the item at issue is sufficiently bad that no one in their right mind would be interested. Like, "Free tickets to an advance screening of the next Jamie Foxx-Colin Farrell vehicle? Who wants that?"

But "Who can afford it?" is at best several steps removed, a vague commentary on some state of affairs whose effects haven't been deeply felt, at least not personally.

And yet you and I should expect to hear it a lot more, especially from people like my friend, who haven't sustained any direct hits in this economic downturn, save for a retreating purchasing power endemic to inflation and being felt at all brackets. People who are, in fact, making more money than they did last year.

Because even to the haves, the standard narrative of the era from which we're emerging -- the wingtipped tales of Wall Street trading floors, bay-windowed apartment buildings (some with floors earmarked for different classes of profession, with employees of Goldman Sachs (GS) and Merrill Lynch (MER) far outranking doctors), raw bar towers and bottle service -- is becoming downright distasteful.

At least for a while, preservation and restraint will define the spending habits of the comfortable. I can't tell you what will happen to the insanely wealthy, whether they'll scale back on watch-winders and fractional jet ownership or not, but I think it's safe to say the zeitgeist affects everybody in some way.

As for the meal I finally ate at Smith & Wollensky, the shrimp cocktail was chilled and delicious, the bone-in ribeye (my favorite cut) was grilled to near-perfection and the tab was aggressive enough to make me wonder who can afford it.

No position in stocks mentioned.
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