Gourmet Dining – at the Supermarket

Supermarkets around the country are adding menus, wine lists and dining tables to their old standbys like the produce aisle, deli and express cashier line.

Grocery-store fine dining is a trend that's heating up in the restaurant industry, and though it's still a niche market, there are a growing number of supermarket restaurants across the U.S.

In August, the expansive Wegmans Food Market in Rochester, N.Y., opened Tastings, whose menu is influenced by Manhattan chef David Bouley. Draeger's – an upscale supermarket in San Mateo, Calif. – boasts a fancy, white-table-cloth restaurant called Viognier with French-inspired Nouveau California cuisine. And seven of Minnesota's high-end Byerly's groceries have adjoining Minnesota Grille restaurants.

"Supermarkets already put in takeout and prepared-meal centers," said Harry Balzer, a food-industry analyst and vice president at NPD Group, a market research company. "It's not a far reach to say, 'Why don't we just open a restaurant?'"

Though there are no hard figures pointing to whether the grocery-store dining concept is a booming business, there is evidence that the industry is on the rise. The National Restaurant Association expects the category to see a 5.5 percent increase this year. And Balzer said takeout – "food that's prepared by somebody else and eaten at home" – accounted for most of the growth in the food business in the '80s and '90s.

Supermarkets and restaurants have caught on and tried to capitalize. Enter the restaurant-supermarket hybrid.

"Strategically, it's a wise idea," Balzer said. "Long-term, this country is moving toward less preparation in the home. Americans are going to forget how to cook."

For grocery stores – especially "foodie" ones like Draeger's, Byerly's and Wegmans – it makes sense to add restaurants to their all-encompassing food businesses.

"The genesis of the idea was to complete the loop in terms of being able to provide meal solutions for our customers," said Michael Beam, director of operations of Wegmans Corporation. "The other main tenet is to introduce people to food and items in the store they may not have tried or tried in ways we prepare it before."

Diners at Tastings can opt for an inexpensive ($15) meal or the $70 five-course tasting menu with wine, said Beam. The menu changes weekly, according to what's in season. And the fact that Tastings' supplier is the adjacent grocery store makes almost anything possible – including handpicking the ingredients.

Tastings' claim to fame is its "flight of food" – a plate of either three different varieties of a food or three different ways to prepare the same thing. The restaurant offers seating by the open kitchen so clients can see how the chefs prepare their meal.

"Our mission is to educate you about food and change the way you dine in a restaurant," Beam said. "There's no magic or smoke and mirrors."

In fact, giving people ideas of how to use the food in the grocery store is one of the strategic reasons behind the hybrids.

Joe Leventhal, manager of the Byerly's Minnesota Grille in Roseville, said the restaurant creates its menus based on what's being featured at the grocery-next-door.

Chef Scott Giambastiani said his upscale restaurant Viognier, which has been open next to Draeger's for nearly six years, has helped boost the store's business – as have the market's kitchenware shop and cooking classes.

"We do everything hand-in-hand. Everything is intermingled," he said.

Viognier diners can order appetizers like pear and pumpkin bisque, ricotta gnocchi in sherry shallot sauce and a Hudson Valley Foie Gras sampler. Entrees include pan roasted rack of lamb, seared California striped bass in a tomato-lobster vinaigrette and rotisserie breast of duck with a black mission fig sauce. There are even desserts such as Spanish saffron parfait in a white peach lavender sauce and a chocolate tart with mandarin sorbet.

Minnesota Grille is more casual and serves family-style fare at low prices. But it's still a hit, and features specialties like wild rice soup, dry-aged beef, liver and onions, meat loaf and other comfort foods.

Leventhal said he gets many worn-out food shoppers who don't feel like taking the next step and preparing what they've bought.

"My business is meal replacement," Leventhal said. "People know they need to do some grocery shopping but really don't want to cook dinner. So they come to me and we cook it for them."