(Jan. 8, 11:36 a.m.) CHICAGO — Chicago restaurants are feeling the pinch as more penny-pinching consumers hunker down in their kitchens and wait for the economy to turn.

High-end restaurant business has been hit harder than other channels by the recession, said Rich Domagala, vice president of Evergreen International Inc.

“People have to eat, but they’re finding ways to do it,” he said. “More people are eating at home, and there’s less white tablecloth business. Saturday night, you used to need a reservation. Now you just walk right in.”

Greg Mandolini, president of the Mandolini Co. Inc., agreed.

“There was a time when you’d go out, there would be a 45-minute wait at the restaurant,” he said. “Now you can walk right in.”

Chain restaurants haven’t been immune from the downturn, either, Domagala said.

“Some are on the bubble,” he said. “It’s kind of scary out there.”

Chain restaurants that felt the need to expand to please stockholders and Wall Street, which demands continual growth of public companies, are feeling the downturn particularly hard, said Peter Testa, president of Testa Produce Co.

“A lot of restaurants are in trouble because they overbuilt,” he said. “The mantra is, ‘Expand or die.’”

That, Testa said, is an unsustainable business model. Chains wind up leaning on their strong performers to prop up their weak ones.

“The 25 that are making money are trying to support the 75 that don’t,” he said. “How crazy is that? They do that instead of investing in the restaurants that are making more money. Slow and steady is better than fast and out of business.”

Boston Market and Bakers Square are among the chains that have been forced to close restaurants in the Chicago area, Testa said.

On the bright side, Chicago-area restaurants have, Testa said, benefited from the steep decline in gas prices this fall.

“When the price of gas was $4, it basically kept people from going out,” he said. “I believe that as it gets more reasonable — $2, $2.25 — I think our industry recovers much quicker. Three or four months ago, you’d go into any restaurant on a Friday night, sit down and say, ‘Where is everybody?’”

Testa speaks from personal experience. Before prices went down, he was one of about five people having dinner one night in one of his favorite downtown restaurants.

By early November, when prices were falling, there were twice as many people in the restaurant. By mid-November, the place was full, Testa said.

Despite the downturn, there are still some high-end items that, for the moment at least, seem to be recession-proof, said Mark Pappas, general manager of specialty distributor Coosemans Chicago Inc.

“We have a few upscale restaurants that will only use vine tomatoes from Holland, even if they cost two or three times more than locally-grown tomatoes.”

In general, though, it’s not the best time to be in the restaurant business in Chicago — especially if you’re trying to break into it, Pappas said.

“I have the guys here look at the restaurants around their houses, and they say, ‘It’s still busy,’” he said. “I think the good restaurants are doing well. But I think it would be scary to be a new restaurant now. Some on the fringe, they’re here today, gone tomorrow.”

Mike Ruffolo, salesman for Michael J. Navilio & Son Inc., is more optimistic about the prospects for white tablecloth restaurants in Chicago.

“The benefit of being in a big city is, people are always going to spend money,” he said. “There are a lot of sports events, a lot of conventions. It’s certainly not going to be going at full-tilt, but they won’t go out of business. People are still going to go out to eat.”

The downturn hasn’t prejudiced one business segment — retail or foodservice — over the other, said Breck Grigas, president of World Wide Produce Inc.

“It’s pretty much across the board,” he said.