"Many of these concepts were the hardest hit during the economic downturn, so they're facing easier comps to roll over," he notes.
Even so, optimism is carrying the day at many of upscale dining's corporate headquarters.
Texas de Brazil director of marketing, Candyce Hedlund, credits strategic site selection and a festive dining experience with driving the Dallas-based chain's list-leading sales gains.
Texas de Brazil has opened many of its newest outlets in retail or mixed-use developments, which Hedlund says allows the concept to capitalize on foot traffic and greater visibility. Additionally, the Brazilian steakhouse's interactive service, which is characterized by wandering meat carvers and vibrant interiors, continues boosting the concept's appeal as a special-occasion destination, while its fixed-price menu provides bang-for-the-buck value.
"People are directing their dollars to where they can get the most for their money, and at Texas de Brazil our guests can get as much out of the experience as they want," Hedlund says.
Other upscale-dining players are seeing high returns as well.
Though claiming only 10 units in 2012, one more than its 2009 tally, Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House continues capturing the attention of its competitors with a category-leading average unit volume (AUV) of $13.8 million. Del Frisco's has distinguished itself with so-called "swarming service," where customers are served simultaneously by multiple servers, and a top-flight beverage program that is highlighted by hand-shaken martinis and crafted cocktails.
"We believe there are significant opportunities to grow our business, strengthen our competitive position, and continue to enhance and evolve," Del Frisco's Restaurant Group CEO Mark Mednansky projects in the company's 2012 annual report.
Among upscale dining's heaviest hitters, Morton's raises an element of concern. The Chicago-based chain, a longstanding reputable and successful operation, closed nearly 10 percent of its units—dropping from 72 to 65 restaurants—and saw a corresponding 4.5 percent drop in sales.
"Morton's has a lot of locations that are tucked away, including some in office buildings, and these [obscure locations] might have put them out of mind for some," Jameson says.
Responding to the recession, many leading upscale-dining concepts developed ways to entice guest visits without the need to drop $100. Even promotional efforts that were once unheard of—like bundled packages, happy hours, and small plates—wiggled into The Capital Grille and Ruth's Chris.
Strategic as those efforts might have been, West says retaining the momentum generated over the last year largely hinges on the return of corporate expense accounts.
"Fine dining ebbs and flows with corporate America, and as expense accounts go up and down, so, too, does the traffic at fine-dining restaurants," he says.