Who would have thought a city-wide restaurant event could be so complicated?
Devra's First's Boston Globe piece entitled "Bargains on the menu - and a side of jitters" made me think harder about this than I ever had before.
On the face of it, it's simple: For two weeks beginning last Sunday, more 220 Greater Boston restaurants offer three-course prix-fixe menus for $20.09 at lunch and $33.09 at dinner. What's so complicated about that? Well, let's begin with some technical aspects:
- It's called "Restaurant Week" but runs for two weeks. [If you think that's confusing, New York's Restaurant Week started on January 18th and is still going...officially!]
- While lots of restaurants are participating, many are not
- Not every participating restaurant is offering both lunch and dinner menus
- The official dates of the event's two weeks exclude Saturdays, but many restaurants choose to include them [Saturday is the busiest day/night of the week for most restaurants; I think the organizers didn't want participating restaurants to be forced to do anything that would hurt them - such as serve a menu that would drive sales DOWN on a busy night.]
- Some restaurants choose to extend the event to run the entire month of March
But that short list is Algebra 1 compared with the calculus each restaurant and diner must work through to reach a go/no-go decision:
- For expensive and generally busy restaurants, Restaurant Week can create a real bargain if you're the guest- a full meal for what they might normally charge for an entre. But for the expensive restaurateur, offering a prix-fixe menu at this price will COST them money since their regular check average can be much higher. I believe this is at the root of why a number of high end restaurants do not participate.
- I heard that in past years some high end restaurants that did participate chose to limit the number of seats they allocated to Restaurant Week diners, requiring all other guests to order from their regular menu. Not sure if that's the case this year or not.
- Menu engineering [yup, that's real industry terminology] strategy for the high end restaurant has to be pretty challenging to settle on: Does the expensive restaurant offer up a menu of the same quality with the same portion sizes for the lower price - therefore shrinking their margin but giving their guests something really special, or do they reduce costs by shrinking portions, streamlining recipes or using lower quality ingredients so that they can still make money at the lower price point?
- Lower end restaurants run into the opposite problem: What if the Restaurant Week pricing structure makes your restaurant MORE expensive than you normally are? Is the strategy to serve the same food at higher prices to cash in, or to reach higher, serving more elaborate preparations, with better ingredients, or perhaps larger portions, trying their best to impress?
As Richard, one of my partners often says: "Things that make you go 'Hmmmm...'"
At The Elephant Walk it was the process of deciding how to approach summer Restaurant Week last August that informed our new prix fixe strategy that we implemented last fall when faced the value challenge head on and lowered our prices. First and foremost, we decided that prix-fixe menus should be about value. So during Restaurant Week for the $33.09 dinner price we offer 4 courses instead of 3, with the option of skipping any course if it feels like too much food or money, and thereby lowering the price to $29.95.
Our regular dinner tasting menu runs $33.95 so the Restaurant Week tasting menu is very close to what we normally do [we change up the dishes to add some extra value and make it more interesting]. - At lunch during Restaurant Week we're confronted with the event requirement to charge MORE than we normally do so we add value by serving more costly preparations
So, after all that, what is a diner to do? - Certainly, no one needs my advice to find happiness, but if anyone were to ask I would tell them something along the same lines as what I tell our guests when pairing food with wine: Having food you like with wine you like will get you closest to a meal you'll love. - Ergo, during Restaurant Week, don't over think it [like I've just done above!]: Visit restaurants you like with people you enjoy and you'll almost certainly have a wonderful meal!