These restaurants bring in the dough

Even in a recession, these are the best-selling independent restaurants in the country.

By Kim Peterson Apr 2, 2010 1:05PM

Tavern on the Green. Credit: (© Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)What makes Tao Restaurant and Nightclub in Las Vegas so popular? The beautiful people, the loud music, the $34 Chilean sea bass?

Whatever it is, Tao has hit the jackpot, once again topping the list of highest-grossing independent restaurants in the U.S. Tao retained its top ranking even though its food-and-beverage sales dropped 13% last year, according to Restaurants & Institutions magazine, which compiles the annual list.

The average dinner check at Tao was $70 last year, and overall the restaurant brought in just over $59 million in sales. That was enough to easily beat the sentimental favorite on the list, Tavern on the Green in New York City, which came in second.

Tavern on the Green, which closed Dec. 31, nabbed only $27 million in sales. (The restaurant is now selling its name and other assets to the highest bidder.)

Last year wasn't a great one for restaurants, as a prolonged recession kept people at home -- or at least spending less on food and alcohol. Sales were down at the top 100 independent restaurants in the country, R&I reports. Combined, they brought in only $1.37 billion last year, compared with $1.52 billion in 2008.

Here are the rest of the restaurants in R&I's top 10 list:

No. 3: Joe's Stone Crab, which began in 1913 as a small lunch counter in Miami Beach, according to its Web site. Now, Joe's wrings an average $68 dinner check from its diners, and brought in $26.3 million in sales last year.

No. 4: Smith & Wollensky in New York City. This restaurant had the highest average dinner check, at $84.50, for a total of $25 million in food and beverage sales.

No. 5: Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C. The average dinner check at Old Ebbitt's was the cheapest of the top 10, at $24, but it served an astonishing 1 million meals. To give you a sense of that accomplishment, consider that the restaurant that came in second for meals served, Tao Las Vegas, only served 590,000. Old Ebbitt took in $24.5 million in sales last year.

No. 6: Carmine's, in New York City's theater district. The family-style Italian restaurant with big portions had an average dinner check of $30, and reported $24 million in sales last year.

No. 7: Lavo Italian restaurant and nightclub in Las Vegas. The owners of Tao apparently know how to run a restaurant, as their new Lavo location brought in $22 million in sales. The average dinner check was $60.

No. 8: If only I got paid extra every time I wrote the word "Tao." Yet another Tao restaurant gets in the top 10. Tao New York saw sales of nearly $21 million last year, with an average dinner check of $68.

No. 9: Buddakan in New York City. R&I calls this place a "see and be seen" concept, and said the restaurant uses promotions and accepts reservations online to help drive sales. Buddakan brought in $20 million in sales last year, with an average dinner check of $49.

No. 10: Rounding out the top 10 is Gibson's Bar and Steakhouse in Chicago. The "meat-eater's paradise" (according to Zagat) saw sales hit nearly $20 million last year, and the average dinner check was $62.


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