According to the just released Zagat 2009/10 New Jersey Restaurants Survey the current economic downturn is shaking up the state’s dining scene.

Based on 6,377 local diners, the new guide covers 1,003 eateries statewide.

In a sign of the current tough times, 74 percent of the survey respondents say that they are making cost-saving adjustments, e.g.: dining out less, picking less expensive places and cutting back on alcohol, appetizers or dessert. For the first time ever in New Jersey, the number of people saying that they are eating out less (at 26 percent) exceeds the number who say they’re eating out more (23 percent).

In response to diners’ focus on value and cost cutting, restaurateurs have adopted all sorts of tactics, e.g.: offering prix fixe lunch and dinner menus, serving simpler and more comforting fare, and opening casual less expensive offshoots to their existing high-end restaurants.

Best Buys: Since value is so important these days, the new guide offers a list of New Jersey’s 40 “Best Bangs for the Buck.” Topping the list is local chain Five Guys Famous Burgers & Fries, where the food is “a cut above,” but the price is a cut below. The guide also touts White House, the popular sandwich spot in Atlantic City, Benny Tudino’s in Hoboken, Hiram’s Roadstand in Fort Lee and WindMill as some of New Jersey’s other Best Buys.

Comfort Makes a Comeback: While the economic downturn has no doubt contributed to some restaurant closings, newcomers continue to sprout, many geared to today’s financial realities. Newcomers Avenue Bistro Pub in Verona, 9 North in Wayne, Backyards Bistro in Hoboken and The Orange Squirrel in Bloomfield are banking on attracting business with homey, affordable fare like mac ‘n’ cheese and frittatas.

Meanwhile, value-priced grilled-chicken chains with a Latin accent are spreading their wings, among them Pollo Campero in West New York and Pollo Tropical in several North Jersey locations. In general, this year’s class of newcomers costs substantially less than the $39.24 statewide average tab.

Weighing In: When dining out in New Jersey, 69 percent of surveyors say it is important to have low-carb, low-fat or heart-healthy items available on the menu. In addition, 64 percent of local diners would support a ban on trans fats from food preparation in New Jersey restaurants. Another 65 percent of respondents feel it is important that their food be locally grown or raised. Joining the ranks of eco-friendly eaters, 11 percent of diners have changed their orders from bottled water to tap water to cut back on waste. When it comes to forking out more for green food, 49 percent say they will pay more for food that has been sustainably produced, while 46 percent will pay more for food that is organic.

Facts and Figures: Service remains the biggest irritant associated with dining in New Jersey as cited by 72 percent of surveyors. One thing is clear: locals are fond of their restaurants, giving New Jersey’s food an overall rating of 21.59 (very good on the Zagat 30-point scale) and service a 19.83 overall rating.

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