Why Do We Have Restaurant Week?

restaurant week

I’ve been a fan of Restaurant Week, where restaurants in a city come together to offer low-priced three-course lunches and dinners once or twice a year.  My history may be a little weak, but I believe Restaurant Week started in New York City in the mid-80s, where Danny Meyer and others offered special lunch prices to entice diners to try their restaurants.  In particular, over the years, Meyer’s restaurants allowed diners to order off the regular menu at dramatically discounted prices.  I remember going to lunch at Eleven Madison Park (which just got a 4th star from the NY Times), having three  incredible dishes, and paying only 20 bucks for that pleasure.  Moreover, we received some chocolates to take home and a 20 dollar gift certificate for any subsequent meal at EMP.  This was just one example of what Danny Meyer did to make a lasting impression with his guests, and that was pretty much the theme of Restaurant Week.

Well, beginning on August 24, downtown Raleigh will be having its own Restaurant Week, and after looking at the menus, my primary thought is, “How the hell is this a good value proposition?”  Let me give you an example.  For $30, you can go to the Irregardless Cafe and get a 3-course meal.  Let’s say you’re a vegetarian, so based on the Irregardless Restaurant Week menu selections, you could order hummus, the portabella polenta, and the blackberry and peach crisp.  Sounds pretty good and not entirely unreasonable for the $30.  But if you went to Irregardless tonight (see their menu here), you could get that hummus for $5 and the portabella polenta for $13.  That’s 18 bucks.  Unless their desserts typically cost more than $12, you end up spending MORE money during Restaurant Week.  WTF?????  Even if you went with the higher priced items, such as the Greek Salad at $7 and the small plate surf & turf at $16, the dessert would have to be more than 7 bucks to make Restaurant Week a good value.  That’s not what Restaurant Week should be about.

The Irregardless Cafe isn’t the only one guilty of this transgression.  From what I could ascertain, Duck & Dumpling and 42nd St. Oyster Bar have similar pricing issues.

Another problem I have is when the Restaurant Week menu is not just limited, but it offers no choices whatsoever.  Examples include 18 Seaboard (at least they’re only charging $20), Second Empire (where grilled salmon is the only entree), 518 West, and Humble Pie (although they do offer separate $20 and $30 menus).  Many other places offer no more than two choices for each course.

Then there’s a place like The Mint, which has a daily $30 menu, so the RW menu is nothing special at all.

Who gets it right?  Well, Posta Tuscan Grille has some interesting choices, and seeing they typically charge 30 bucks for their baked sea bass, which is on the RW menu (although portion sizes may be smaller, which is OK with me), this is a great deal.   Red Room might have the best values with their $20 menu.  You’ll save at least ten dollars going to Sono during Restaurant Week.  The Big Easy offers 11 different entrees for RW, and with them charging only 20 bucks for their three courses, there are some definite bargains to be found.  Solas could be a solid value, depending on what you order.

Jibarra and Bogart’s don’t give you a lot of choices, but they’re charging only $20, which would save you some money.

A place like Caffe Luna handles this week a bit differently, where the entrees offered are not typically on their menu, and at $20, this will inevitably be a better value than a regular visit.

In the end, my primary question is this: Why do we have Restaurant Week?  I thought it was a mechanism to get people to try restaurants. Yes, it puts a hurt on profit margins, but this is an investment in the future success of each establishment.  Build up some goodwill during Restaurant Week, and if you do it well, then you’ll establish some new loyal customers.  Unfortunately, too many restaurants treat Restaurant Week like a big burden, and if that’s the case, they shouldn’t participate.

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16 Responses to Why Do We Have Restaurant Week?

  1. David Williard says:

    I completely agree, and find this a discouraging contrast to Triangle Restaurant Week earlier this summer. Then, Il Palio had a limited option three course dinner menu for $20 (a pronounced savings over their dinner menu), and cemented themselves in my head as a destination for Tuscan-inspired food and special occasions.

    THAT’s what restaurant week should be about.

  2. Anonymous says:

    We are big fans of Triangle REst. Week and generally try a couple new places during that week. They usually have good deals. We are also guilty of hitting up our faves during that week too, to get the “full meal for a bargain”.

    I admit, I wish restaurants always had a couple three course set meals on offer. Even if they were smaller portions. I like getting three small courses.

    So, far, i am not impressed with the options for Raleigh REst. week.

  3. Chris says:

    I’ll chime in with additional agreement.

    Although, part of the “problem” is that restaurant prices in the area are already so reasonable to begin with. In Boston or New York or Washington D.C., a $30 dinner at a restaurant of the caliber we’re talking about here is indeed a bargain — fixed menu or not. In these places, restaurant week reservations fill up as soon as dates are made available. A real buzz about dining out develops. Sites like Yelp.com are a flurry of discussion and strategizing. Here, not so much.

    That means that the $30 price point here is too high for a “special” restaurant week in the Triangle. Oh well, I will vote with my feet. I’m sure others will, too. For restaurant owners, its definitely a missed opportunity.

  4. Robert says:

    I find restaurant week to be a waste, for more serious diners. Restaurants wind up packed with people looking to try a cheap meal at an expensive restaurant; the kitchen repetitively turns out mediocre food; and the service is typically poor.

    I gave up restaurant week in D.C. because visiting a restaurant during that time was always a disappointment. I went to Il Palio during the last RW here, and was not surprised that despite the cheap price the food was at best mediocre.

    I’m not even sure RW is good for restaurants – it irritates serious, repeat diners, and probably doesn’t generate much repeat business from someone whose main concern is getting the most for their $20/$30.

  5. Rocky-cat says:

    I, too, am remarkably underwhelmed with the TRW offerings. For the most part, it’s a big, overpriced yawn.

    IIRC, the NY Restaurant Week was started in 1980 as a promotional tie-in with the Democratic National Convention taking place in the City that summer. Initially, the participating restaurants all charged $19.80 for their specials. The pricing, etc. has evolved over the years but the promotion allowed me, as a teenager and young adult, to try restaurants such as Felidia and Alison on Dominick that I could never have afforded otherwise.

    It seems like many of the local chefs – even ones I otherwise respect – are just going through the motions for the sake of the publicity. I’m happy to see I wasn’t the only one who noticed what the Irregardless was up to. I had a good laugh over that “deal” yesterday. This TRW is shaping up to be a downright must miss.

  6. leandra says:

    I also agree with the general feeling about TRW as posted above. We visited three restaurants in May that we had not been to before: Four Square (Durham), Solas (Raleigh) and Il Palio (Chapel Hill). For $25, we felt Four Square was hands down the best value for the money during that week.

    I recall Restaurant week in Atlanta a few years ago where several places had dinner for $20.03 (i.e. same price as the year) which I think was a much better bargain.

  7. Varmint says:

    Irregardless lowered their Restaurant Week menu price to $20. Kudos to them, as this was the right thing to do.

  8. Anon says:

    FYI, Red Room seems to have cut their entree portions in half between Mon and Wed. Went Wed night and got a maybe 1/2 inch thick filet (friend reported getting a good thick 6-8 ouncer on Monday), plus had to wait a good 45 for the entree. Out of lava cake as well. But the shrimp ceviche was tasty and plentiful. Service/management did apologize for delay, and give some incentives for future return, but figured I’d get that out there.

  9. detlefchef says:

    Varmint, my point is simply this. I am not denying that there are some menus that don’t seem to make sense and that you could likely cobble together something just as cool for less on their menu. However, as I mentioned on twitter, the places that I would expect to put something cool forward are putting something cool forward. And the places that I’ve grown to be rather uninterested are, well, doing something uninteresting.

    Again, as I mentioned before, I’m not sure why this week is supposed to magically make places better than they are? If they typically mail it in, they’re going to mail it in.

    You act like it’s some huge chore to look at the menus and see who’s doing something cool and who isn’t. Since when does a guy like you mind looking at a bunch of menus? How many meals were you planning on having? 3? 4? 5? You weren’t going to hit every place, so why does it bother you that some of them aren’t doing something cool?

    Also, as someone mentioned above, many places here in the triangle don’t enjoy the massive mark-ups that places in NY do. I mean, is this supposed to be some “thank you” from the industry? Are the restaurants supposed to put out food that they actually lose money on? I hate to break it to you, but most of us are hanging on for dear life. We can’t afford to have a week where we work for free. It would be one thing if this was a Mon-Thursday thing, but I can’t afford to give away a bunch of food on the two days that make up the majority of my sales. It should be mutual. We put out something particularly cool at a reduced price and you guys come out and enjoy it. So, if a place normally has a $30 3-course option, they just make it cooler than normal.

    This doesn’t mean that everyone “gets it” and just punts. But how is that a phenomenon exclusive to RW?

    A $20 3-course meal gives you less than $7 per course. That’s the price of a typical appetizer in some of these places, less than that at others. Say the dessert costs less than normal and you take off $4 for that. OK, now you’ve got $16 left for an app and entree. Say you sell an app that would typically cost $7-8 (because it needs to be cool)for $5 instead. That leaves you $11 for the entree (and again, you want to do something cool). So, after you’ve already knocked off a combined $5 or so for the app and dessert, you’re left with all of $11 for an entree. Anything remotely cool would cost $6-10 more than that. So, the total discount? between $11-15. Seems like a pretty good deal to me.

    If you dare to go the $30 route, then now you’re talking an app that would normally go for $10, a dessert that would go for at least $6 and an entree that would certainly be around $20. That’s $36 or more. Again, a discount. Hell, at Jujube, we’re doing a very labor-intensive prep of a rib-eye steak. Hell, just slapping a ribeye on the grill and serving it with two sides is going to run you north of $20 most places and this is 1/3 of a $30 meal.

    Regardless of which price point you go with, heaven help you if the diner feels like the portions weren’t big enough. You’ve undone any good vibes the week was supposed to garner you. So forget anyone trying to do something remotely fancy (especially if they go the $20 route), because they can’t afford to do that and make sure that those out there who equate value with portion size won’t get pissed. I’m not lumping you in that category, but rather simply pointing out that that group exists and must be taken into consideration.

    Honestly, if you ask me, I preferred it when the $25 option was still in play. It was an easier number to do something that was still certainly a clear value but not something where you were simply giving food away. As it stands, Jujube can’t afford to do 3 courses for $20 and $30 opens me up to critique like you’re making. Because you can get out for less than $30 a head for 3-course (albeit not with as cool a menu). $25 was a nice sweet spot.

    So, I guess we see it differently. I see it as an opportunity for restaurants to put their best foot forward at a bit of a discount. You seem to be fixating on the discount part.

  10. detlefchef says:

    Also, I don’t think there’s much point in comparing the original restaurant week to what we have here, because the entire landscape is different.

    It all began because places that were prohibitively expensive for most people would basically dumb down their menus a bit and charge way less so people who were really into food but weren’t rich could at least experience a meal there. It might not be as cool as what you usually get there, but it was still cool because it’s not like they forgot how to cook. So, you got cassoulet instead of the sweetbreads and foie gras on the normal menu because sweetbreads and foie gras cost $20 for a smallish appetizer.

    Thing is, there are almost no places in the triangle that qualify as places that most foodies simply can’t afford to eat at. Not saying that anyone can nor saying that most can afford to eat at the higher end places all the time. But there’s almost no places that people who really care about food just can’t fit into their budget even once in a while.

    So, what’s the point of dumbing down our menus so people who can already afford to come to our place anyway come to our place and get something less cool than we usually do? Why not have it be a week where everyone just tries to do something particularly cool instead at a particularly fair price?

    As far as the lack of options each place offers that you complained about, that also seems sort of odd. Given the “do something cool” bit, and the fact that it’s impossible to go to all the restaurants that participate, why not simply find the menus that look the best to you and go there? It’s not like you have to get the tasting menu. If someone in the party wants to go a la carte, so be it. Like you said, in many places their meal will not cost much if any more.

    In fact, that might even make more sense if you’ve never been to a place before. One gets the tasting menu, the other gets some dishes off the menu and you get a chance to try their super-cool 3 course menu as well as what you’re likely to see if you come back some other time.

  11. Lesley says:

    To also chime in from the Twitter comments, I feel like you ignore straight economics. People are not going to pay $30 for a three-course meal if they can see it on the menu for less. So either the restaurants will introduce new options that are appealing, in which case people will come… or they won’t. If they don’t step up then they won’t get much out of it. Eventually they’ll improve their offerings or not participate.

    I do hope more of the higher-priced restaurants in the area will begin to participate in coming years. However, there are not so many of them; so they will be filled, perhaps, with bargain-hunters. A week of lost revenue because there isn’t space for higher-paying customers is very tough.

  12. Varmint says:

    Let me start with some concessions. First, I actually agree that for the most part, the limited menu options are not a big deal at all. If the offering is a cool tasting menu, then I like that and could see going to the place.

    If, on the other hand, the RW menu is only a subset of the existing menu, then I question why that restaurant is participating, particularly if the cost is greater than if the customer ordered those same three items off the regular menu. I’ll stop short of calling that particular situation fraudulent, but there are a number of participating restaurants who have done exactly that. And I believe that the organizers of RW should implement a requirement that the RW menu not be more expensive than if the customer ordered the same items off the regular menu. If people (including chefs and restaurateurs) disagree with this position, then I’m obviously way off base here, it seems.

    Second, when the restaurant takes the time to put together something different — that is, a truly unique menu for RW — then I’m fully supportive of that. It’s an opportunity to try something different, and, quite frankly, it allows the restaurant to show off a bit in an environment where the local industry is being publicized.

    Finally, I admit that the purpose of Restaurant Week may be vastly different than what it is in New York or other cities. I know price points are different between here, NYC or DC. I know that places are struggling. But the one question I still have not had answered is what exactly is RW’s purpose? Is this a restaurant industry-driven event, or one done by the area municipalities? Is it an immediate profit making venture or is it designed to bring in diners to try something new? There may be no easy answer to this question, I realize.

    I know how hard it is on restaurants, Charlie, and particularly in January and February. I am a huge supporter of chefs and the restaurant industry. For the most part, I don’t write reviews of restaurants, and if I do, it’s rarely critical (although in the Restaurant Review Roulette series, I’ve made one first-hand critical assessment, and I often guess what a restaurant is like without any direct knowledge).

    It may be that RW is an opportunity to help those restaurants stay afloat for the winter months. It may be a way to fill some seats that would otherwise be empty. I’m cool with that.

    But you also mentioned that “there are almost no places in the triangle that qualify as places that most foodies simply can’t afford to eat.” My next question is whether RW is for the foodies, or is it for the masses? Of course I have looked at the menus, as that’s how I discovered the restaurants that are not doing anything different from any other day. But what about a non-foodie, just a person who enjoys dining out who says, “Ooh, I’ve heard about XYZ restaurant and want to try it during Restaurant Week, as the menu is only 30 bucks”? And that restaurant just plops out three items from their regular menu that should have cost the diner 24 bucks, but this week, they’re charging 30? So as it applies to this particular situation, am I somewhat obsessed by the “value” of RW? Guilty as charged, but I must concede that it’s more that I’m pissed that places could get away with this behavior.

    And let me be entirely clear — I don’t use coupons for the most part (or Groupons or other discounts) because I feel like I’m taking money out of the restaurant’s hands. So there’s obvious a big personal disconnect in my fixation here with value when it’s something I routinely avoid.

    In my blog post above, I concluded by asking what is the purpose of RW. I wrote the following:

    “I thought it was a mechanism to get people to try restaurants. Yes, it puts a hurt on profit margins, but this is an investment in the future success of each establishment. Build up some goodwill during Restaurant Week, and if you do it well, then you’ll establish some new loyal customers. Unfortunately, too many restaurants treat Restaurant Week like a big burden, and if that’s the case, they shouldn’t participate.”

    To me, it comes down to this.

    1. If your RW menu contains items directly off the regular menu, then make sure that the RW costs are no more (and hopefully slightly less) than the costs by ordering off the regular menu.

    2. RW should encourage restaurants to offer something not typically offered by the restaurant. The value of that particular menu is really up to each diner.

    In the end, Charlie, I believe you and I are in the exact same boat. I do believe that it is an opportunity for restaurants to put their best foot forward, preferably at a discount. But when they don’t do anything different than any other day, and charge more for it, well, how can anyone support that?

  13. Varmint says:

    Lesley, you say, “People are not going to pay $30 for a three-course meal if they can see it on the menu for less.”

    Well, then why are restaurants doing exactly that? And why are they allowed to participate in RW?

  14. Varmint says:

    I may have to eat some crow here. I’ve now gone through the RW menus, and there are NOT a lot of restaurants rehashing all 3 items from their regular menu. I’ll post a full blog piece about it.

  15. detlefchef says:

    Dean,

    While we’re on the subject of being in the same boat, I agree that it is completely lame to just grab 3 dishes off the menu and charge more than they would otherwise cost. I can’t fathom someone doing that. Can they not do simple math and realize their diners can as well? That’s indefensible and anyone doing so risks serious backlash.

    As for the purpose, I don’t think it should be either a vehicle to fill the pockets of restaurants nor should it be them putting on a mass give-away to make new friends. I think it should be them doing something unique and cool at a very fair but not philanthropic price to celebrate dining out. That way, the diners get some very cool food and the restaurants enjoy a busy week during an otherwise slow time even if their margins are tighter than normal because they’re selling this particularly cool food at a discount. Win-win.

    Again, I realize that this is contrary to the original purpose of RW as it happened in NY, but again, those were places where you could run up a $100 per person check average without even trying. So there’s a very large group of people, even those who are very much into eating well, that simply could never otherwise eat at those places.

    My version of what it should be has more to do with molding the event to a market that already has plenty of good restaurants where you can spend $20-30 per person without bottom-feeding the menu.

    So, the choice is either have everyone do what they normally do (or even dumb it down) for next to nothing or do something particularly cool for the same price a normal meal would cost. And, considering that a normal meal costs what most people can swing more than once or twice a year, option 2 just seems like more fun for all involved.

  16. Lesley says:

    Perhaps some restaurants feel like the price puts them into a box. I wonder if giving them more of a choice… $20, $30, $40 and $50 for a three-course meal, for instance. Then, maybe more of the higher-end restaurants will participate. The purpose would be for the triangle area restaurants to showcase what they do best during one or two weeks a year.

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