* McDonald's Q1 EPS 83 cents excl items vs view 82 cents
* P.F. Chang's Q1 EPS 56 cents; Wall St view 33 cents
* Yum Q1 EPS excl items 48 cents vs Wall St view 40 cents
* Chipotle Q1 EPS 78 cents tops Wall St view of 55 cents
* McDonald's shares fall 2.5 pct; P.F. Chang's rise 21 pct (Adds results from Yum and Chipotle, analyst comment; updates share activity)
By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES, April 22 U.S. restaurant companies including McDonald's Corp (MCD.N) posted better-than-expected quarterly profits on Wednesday, with fast-food benefiting from cheap menus and higher-priced chains getting a boost from cost cuts as customers pinch pennies.
Fast-food chains like McDonald's and Yum Brands Inc (YUM.N) operate some of the recession's top-performing chains because they are drawing cash-strapped diners with low-priced "value menus" that include $1 items.
Meanwhile, expensive and weaker-performing casual dining chains are posting bigger earnings surprises and larger stock gains thanks to aggressive expense management.
"The casual dining numbers, we're seeing aren't good numbers; they're just less bad," said Stifel, Nicolaus & Co analyst Steve West. "Less bad is the new good."
McDonald's reported higher quarterly profit and said April sales at established restaurants were doing as well as or better than their 4.3 percent uptick in the first quarter, despite the ongoing recession.
Nonetheless, McDonald's shares finished down almost 2.5 percent at $54.25.
The hamburger chain's 83-cents per-share profit topped Wall Street's average estimate by a penny per share, but many analysts said the results basically matched expectations.
McDonald's "is the best performing restaurant stock over the last 5 years by a wide margin, but ... the company's fundamental momentum will slow meaningfully in 2009," Jefferies analyst Jeff Farmer wrote in a client note.
"In an earnings season defined by meaningful casual dining EPS upside, (McDonald's) in-line (first-quarter) EPS fails to impress," Farmer said.
Yum, the parent of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC chains, reported a 1 percent rise in sales at global restaurants open at least a year and a 14 percent drop in net income for the quarter. But shares were up 3 percent in after-hours trade when its per-share profit of 48 cents for the quarter beat Wall Street estimates by 8 cents per share.
While McDonald's and Yum continue to post positive same-store sales, costlier casual dining chains are slashing costs to protect profits from tumbling same-store sales.
Despite its poor performance, overall share prices for the mid-market casual dining segment are up about 40 percent so far this year, Stifel analyst West said.
P.F. CHANG'S SHARES SIZZLE
P.F. Chang's said first-quarter net income jumped 38 percent. Its earnings per share of 56 cents handily topped Wall Street's target of 33 cents per share.
The higher profit came despite a 6.6 percent drop in sales at established P.F. Chang's eateries and a 2.2 percent fall in same-store sales at the company's smaller Pei Wei chain.
Chipotle, which is more upscale and higher-priced than most fast-food operators, reported a 47 percent rise in quarterly profit and its earnings per share of 78 cents topped Wall Street's average call for earnings of 55 cents per share.
Closely watched sales at restaurants open at least 13 months rose 2.2 percent as Chipotle's higher menu prices offset weaker traffic.
Shares in P.F. Chang's rose nearly 21 percent to $32.54 in regular trade and Chipotle climbed 5.4 percent in extended trade after gaining 5.6 percent during the regular trading session. (Additional reporting by Nicole Maestri in New York; Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Dave Zimmerman, Gerald E. McCormick, Leslie Gevirtz)