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Restaurant Week


bilrus
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My wife and I have never ventured into the Restaurant Week promotions for one reason or another, but I was thinking about trying one or two places we haven't been before.

I was reading the thread on the New York board and they all seemed fairly enthusiastic about the idea, but I have heard mixed messages about the both the concept and the execution.

Is the food any good - is it watered down or reduced portions of the regular menu?

How limited are the options?

Is it just too damned crowded with once a year diners?

Any particularly good (or bad) experiences?

Can you get the full feel of the restaurant or is it just better to suck it up, wait two weeks and pay a little more for the regular menu?

Bill Russell

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I'm from the other side of the fence. I'll try to answer from a consumer's viewpoint. I would like to say I think it's a great promotion, and has really taken off.

As for the food, it varies. Some places will do set menus and offer their a la carte as well, in case you don't want to do RW. We couldn't keep up with the set menu so after a day we gave up and offered our whole damn menu, with a few upcharges as necessary. I've read bad things about places that don't take it seriously in terms of effort. As for options, it varies from place to place, from set menus for RW to just order from the a la carte menu.

As for the crowd, imagine that every place that participates to be as busy as say a week after a stellar review from Tom S, maybe worse. It's just that busy. Most people are here for RW, so I would say yes to once a year type crowds.

Good experiences? Went to Tosca (with some friends who wanted to participate in RW), ended up having a tasting menu and one lot of wine, considerably more than the 30.03 that they wanted to spend. Oh well.

Bad experience? Doing 120-130% capacity for 13 meal periods, having plans to go out on Sunday night, and my grill guy calls in sick, so I end up working grill. I felt like I just put my cat to sleep. That was as empty as a feeling as I'd ever felt.

Comedic experience - Having a friend of mine who works at a high-level restaurant call me and say that more than a few people would sit down, order, eat, get the check and try to claim Restaurant Week. Sorry mate.

Restaurant week reminds us in this business why we drink so much. But I still think it's a good thing.

Firefly Restaurant

Washington, DC

Not the body of a man from earth, not the face of the one you love

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I've done restaurant week almost every time I go. Most times, I stick to the set usually mor elimited choice of the menu but it's all really pretty good. Tosca was a lot of fun. We're planning on hitting somewhere new this time. Anyone know if Chef Geoff's is participating?

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I take a somewhat passive anti-Restaurant Week approach. Not that I'm against RW just that during RW I find I choose to go to restaurants that don't participate. On my list this year is a first visit to Nectar and a second visit to SBC Cafe.

As a customer, I've always been skeptical of the true "value" a RW offers--restricted menu options, dining rooms filled with more tourists, more newbie and/or unappreciative locals, more crowded dining rooms, servers having to work harder for less appreciative diners and less than their usual tips. I don't think these RW weeks are fair to the service staff. On one hand RW is a good thing for some restaurants that for whatever reason aren't doing the business that they'd like to do, but my first suspicion is maybe they aren't doing the business they'd like to because their overall commitment and effort week in and week out isn't the value it should be. I don't think I'd want my first visit to a place to be under these trying conditions, with the chance of a pleasant experience slightly stacked against me.

That's also not to say there isn't some potential on the list this year--there is, most notably for me Kaz Sushi, David Greggory, Yanyu, Tosca, Signatures, Poste and Sushi-Ko, I've been to some of these, not yet been to others. However, I think I'd probably enjoy both a first experience at these places better some other week and enjoy a return visit to these places some other week.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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On one hand RW is a good thing for some restaurants that for whatever reason aren't doing the business that they'd like to do, but my first suspicion is maybe they aren't doing the business they'd like to because their overall commitment and effort week in and week out isn't the value it should be. 

The original idea was to boost sales in two trying business times, end of January and end of July. I also think the first one in DC was in October after September 11th. I view it as a giving back to the community thing. Lots of people support us, we give it back to them two weeks a year. There are many restaurants on the RW list that are full regardless, I think they are looking to increase their market by allowing this "preview" at a reasonable price.

As for the commitment week-in and week-out, it won't change for one week. The places that go through the motions will certainly be dragged across the coals on several internet sites, so you really have to be on your game. I am not denying the fact that marginal places are doing this to increase business, but a little research and you can cull those out.

I am certainly with you on avoiding this week as a diner, but for the masses, I think it's something to look forward to. I certainly couldn't go to signatures or Poste and spend 30.03. I just couldn't do it. Would be much more.

Firefly Restaurant

Washington, DC

Not the body of a man from earth, not the face of the one you love

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Steve and john, thanks for the perspectives.

I think I am going to try it, but not at a place that I have been really itching to go to. TJ, since you had a good experience at Tosca, I have made a res there for next Tuesday (through Open Table, Vengroff - this will put me over the top for my first certificate).

I'd be interested in hearing anyone else's experiences next week.

Bill Russell

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Yeah but John, RW has been going on in NYC for a long time, it always seems more of a crap shoot than it should be and if restaurateurs really wanted to give back to the community they could run half-price wine nights with their full regular menu and I think as many people would appreciate it, there would be less confusion, less attitude, plus the service staff would get tipped better because most frequent diners would tip on the full price of the wine anyway. Even if they didn't, they'd still be ahead since diners would be tipping on regular food prices. We're not disagreeing John--I'll just point out there are other ways to give back which don't necessarily impact the staff, the service or the dining experience as negatively as I sense RW does.

Bill, I'm interested as well, because I think it's important to talk about the places that do really embrace restaurant week in good faith. That's what really drives the NY forum threads on this subject and I'm gratified to read so many positive experiences. Here's the thing, though, NYC is a much much more competitive market anyway. Two caveats I didn't mention but which you might want to consider: first, if you dine with someone picky, as I do, RW might not give you enough choice and second, for these meals to have real value, for me it usually comes down to the dessert being good. A good app and an entree--though most likely not what you'd like to order off the regular menu--plus a too-warm $13 glass of red wine and a not-so-great (regularly$7.95) dessert you would have regretted ordering anyway is no value. So try to check out the RW menus, see if there is any special wine pricing ahead of time, and then roll the dice on dessert.

Hopefully we'll accumulate a few success stories that see RW as a way to reel in customers long term. (Like John in how he offered the whole menu rather than some very limited set menu.)

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I think there are two camps to this in the customer side and the business side.

A lot (and I mean a lot) of people let's call them "bridge and tunnel" crowd" are chomping at the bit for this. If one of ten of them return during normal business, I would be pleasantly surprised. How they go on about it seems to be the highlight of their year culinarily.

Others, like bilrus for example, seem to have a thought out plan, and will see some places for the first time and he seems to get it. I went once to Tosca during RW, actually forgot it was RW, the hecticness kind of put me off, but we had a great time.

Business side of things, there are a few ways to go about it.

If you need the business, you pay your fee, you get a shot in the arm $$$ wise for a week or so, but if you do it badly you get beaten online. If you are not good during normal business, you are not good during RW.

I'll use Galileo as an example for my next point, as they stick out in my memory as a top-level place that got beaten last time. They (as the opinion goes, I wasn't there so I can't judge) went through the motions (something like pasta bolognese, which if anyone can make it taste good it's Roberto) and got beaten.

We open our whole menu, to expose (hopefully) new cusotmers to what we do. We don't have any special menus, we just do what we do for a somewhat lower price. The only thing we alter is our dessert menu, as we can't from a logistical viewpoint keep up with quality and quantity.

Conclusion, am I aware that RW has going on in NYC for a long time, and have certainly taken advantage of it (especially Daniel a few years ago). But in DC, I recall RAMW rolling it out for September 11th because the industry was tanking.

I really think that when people budget 30.03 plus a glass of wine they miss the whole point of it. Bring something from home or spend some money on wine if you can. Get an after dinner drink. Don't go and spend 38.03 (30.03 plus a glass of the cheapest house wine). You might miss the boat.

To do this half-heartedly I think is a bad idea, it could be the only impression a lot of people get about a place. Steve, you guys, and Cashion's are organizations that come to mind not to do it. Besides the obvious strain on service, is there any other reasons why you don't participate? Certainly not a dig, as the community could not ask any more from Jose and Co. Just wanted another viewpoint, as from a cooks angle, the mayhem is not something to look forward to.

Firefly Restaurant

Washington, DC

Not the body of a man from earth, not the face of the one you love

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Steve, that is a good point, my wife is fairly picky, but more in terms of the higher end ingredients that probably wouldn't be on the RW menu. ANd for desserts - we will be at Zaytinya next weekend and get to have the Turkish Delight so that will help make up for it - right?

Edited by bilrus (log)

Bill Russell

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John I think your latest assessment is pretty right on overall--and you agree with my ultimate point which is, essentially, if you are going to do it, do it well. That's from the industry side. I think where I diverge from you the most--and again--I think we're even pretty close on this--I'd rather see inexperienced diners not have their sense of a restaurant (and their general sense of fine dining or food and wine pairing) formed by their experiences during RW. The odds are just too stacked against an inexperienced diner guessing wrong--or being led wrong--someone who doesn't eat out a lot and someone who may not eat at these types of restaurants very often when they do go out to eat. And then what might happen to the person so looking forward to this but who is inexperienced? They have a so-so experience under difficult circumstances all around as a result of the "mayhem"--they wonder is this all there is or if it is worth the hassle--and next time they settle back into the rut of the Cheesecake Factory or the chain.

The obvious promotional boost aside, I guess the question to ask is does RW ultimately raise awareness long term or just result in a stressful, short-term boost in covers? Does it help create more savvy and appreciative diners? It's one thing to get beaten up on the internet, as you say, but much of that is anonymous, uninformed, unsophisticated and for the wrong reasons anyway, especially what takes place off of eGullet. If there is value in how we discuss things here it's ultimately going to be in how we help raise awareness and savvy amongst all diners. And I'm not worried about the more experienced diner doing RW--especially returning to places they've been before. They know what to expect going in and are in a better position to assess, to evaluate.

I don't know why Jose and Proximo aren't doing RW but I could hazard several guesses--RW is really designed to fill high end tables at lunch and dinner; by and large Jose's places are fairly packed and service stretched as it is, at very moderate price points for both lunch and dinner anyway and offering good value and interesting food at those given price points. In terms of tapas and mezze well that's just tailor-made to give newbies and the "bridge and tunnel crowd" a taste, to dip their feet in the water at a gentle price. (Why do you think so many other restaurants are starting to offer some version of small bar food and small dishes?) It's already controlled, regular and managed mayhem in those restaurants at least during peak time. So in effect it's RW all year round at Zaytinya and Jaleo. Cafe is a different kind of restaurant, unique actually, and has some very special things already, a nice list, the weekend dim sum and the opening of the upstairs Bar this month, each in their own way drawing people in and raising awareness little by little.

The decision to particpate or not might also have something to do with the notion of "value." Let me put it this way--who is giving more back to the community and offering better value (not that I buy into that as a valid reason for RW but just for the sake of discussion): Restaurant A--participating in RW with the limited $20 lunch and $30 dinner deals but who has a very over-priced wine list, unhappy servers and looking to turn your table over quickly or Restaurant B--who is not particpating in RW but where you can eat well for that amount of money year-round, at your own pace and drink wines much more fairly priced year-round? I'd always go with the place offering "value" like that year-round as giving more back to the community.

Regardless, one thing we're all agreeing on is this--whether you make the effort to do RW right or try to do it right all the time--you're going to connect with customers, form a good impression, and as a result get repeat business. And in the long run that will help everyone in this area trying to do good work.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Regardless, one thing we're all agreeing on is this--whether you make the effort to do RW right or try to do it right all the time--you're going to connect with customers, form a good impression, and as a result get repeat business.  And in the long run that will help everyone in this area trying to do good work.

I hope there are not people trying to just do RW week right, might be why they are there in the first place. Steve, excellent response.

Firefly Restaurant

Washington, DC

Not the body of a man from earth, not the face of the one you love

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I have been to about 10 different restaurant week restaurants since I moved here. I will say that whether Restaurant Week is worth it varies depending on the restaurant. Some restaurants, like DC Coast, offer you a choice of a few appetizers, ANY entree from their REGULAR menu and a choice of like 2 or three desserts. On the otherhand, you have places like Bistro Bis which gives you a choice of a soup or salad, salmon or lamb, and 2 desserts. And I felt the quality of the meal wasnt as good as their normal fare. I'd say your best bet is to get the restaurant to tell you about their restaurant week menu and decide from there. If its from their regular menu. I think its worth it.

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This is a little long, but I guess I just like talking about food (maybe that's why I like eGullet?)

I went to Tosca last night and would say that it was good but I was expecting a little more.

I did the Restaurant Week menu and my wife ordered off the regular menu. We were started off with an amuse of what I believe to be prosciutto wrapped goat cheese. This was one of the more flavorful items of the night with the two stong flavors working well together.

I read somewhere where someone mentioned a good bread service here, but I thought this was the low point of the evening (aside from the amazing loud and festive party of six seated directly behind me - they even sang at one point and it wasn't Happy Birthday). The first basket of bread we had was a few slices of plain Italian bread with no butter or olive oil. We did eat it because we were hungry and the second basket included a foccachia with onions on top, which was OK, and the wiater gave us olive oil with the second basket.

For our first course I had the "Traditional tomato and country bread thick soup with house made dry aged ricotta and basil pesto" and my wife ahd the Radicchio salad with walnuts, gorgonzloa and pear. The soup was good, with an actual bright tomato taste, but not really thick as described. Although it seems a little lame to order a salad in place of something more substantial - I actually really liked the salad (we always pass back and forth), as I thought the gorgonzola was very good. I liked the presentation of this dish, which had the cheese and pear on the side.

For our main courses, I had the "Roasted Mediterranean Sea bass with a balsamic vinegar sabajon and sauté spinach with pine nut and raisins". This was just OK - not much different than what you can get in a number of other restaurants. The sabayon was perhaps the best part of this dish. My wife ordered a Pappardelle with crab meat (that isn't on the online menu). I thought the flavor was OK, but the texture was a little on the soft and thick side. My wife enjoyed it, but looked like she was tiring of it by the end. Last week we had the pasta tasting menu at Babbo in New York and I have a feeling it will be a while before another pasta dish wows us like those did.

For dessert I had the "Organic tomato marmelade sweet tart with ricotta-basil gelato and basil syrup sauce". This was the item that I was looking most forward to and it didn't disappoint. Sweet but not cloyingly so it did have one flavor I couldn't but my taste buds on but it worked. My wife had the "Crispy strudel of local peaches with amaretto cookies, mascarpone cheese and vanilla cream with Dolcetto wine syrup". Again this was good, although in my (one) bite, I didn't see much of the syrup. This had the look and feel of a peach spring roll. Finally we were presented with a small bite of chocolate cake and two of the lightest and crispest cookies I have had in a while. I think the dessert was the best part of the meal for me. Steve mentioned that this is a key to the RW experience, so I guess that worked for me.

In the end, I am glad I tried it and felt like the value for Restaurant Week was fine (It saved about 8 or 9 dollars for my meal over what it would have cost off the menu), but I am not sure I would go back with so many other options to choose from. I have heard Tosca compared favorably to Galileo and Obelisk. I haven't tried Obelisk (yet) but I did like Galileo better on my one visit there.

Now its on to Corduroy on Thursday.

(Edited out remnants of my post from that other food site. I feel like a cheating spouse who just got caught. :shock: )

Edited by bilrus (log)

Bill Russell

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The restaurant where I work is not participating. This has not stopped people from calling up and actually ARGUING with the reservationists that they saw our name on the list. Last year, 2 people actually had dinner and ordered wine and complained to the manager when their rather large check came, even though there is no mention anywhere on the menu about RW. Another table of 4 came in, ordered Champagne, asked about our RW menu, then crossed their arms and pouted like children when they were told we were not participating. I had to leave the floor, go to my office and print out the RAMW webpage to prove to them we weren't lying to them. This is the flip side.

Edited by Mark Sommelier (log)

Mark

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Jeez, what a bunch of ingrates, Mark.

There was an extension week of RW last time; not all restaurants who participated initially participated the second week. I know at least one place got listed on the materials for the second week even though they hadn't planned to participate. Bet that made for some interesting supplies and staffing shenanigans. And then there are places that continue to offer the deal, without advertising it, well past the end of RW. If you're a diner and you want to take advantage of the RW deals it's worth your while to call and ask if the promotion is continuing at your target restaurant, even if it's a few days after RW ends.

I'll be hitting Tosca and Charlie Palmer Steak this week. Bilrus, thanks for your report, I think I will have to try that tomato and basil dessert.

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Tosca was very clear about the promotion with the RW menu inside the regular menu. And the waiter asked right away if we were familiar with the promotion.

But how do you stop people from being idiots, like those Mark mentioned?

Bill Russell

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Get JAZ to write a Restaurant Week etiquette guide for the WashPost, mayhaps? :cool:

The problem is, it's really hard to educate a diner about this sort of thing without altering their mood for the worse.

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A friend of mine who's restaurant is participating has been complaining about the whole week. Aparently the kitchen is utterly slammed and barely able to keep up with demand, while the servers are thorougly frusterated because the afforementioned "bridge and tunnel crowd" is simply taking advantage of the opportunity to eat in a restaurant they can't normally afford. This inevitably creates one solution for a server who isn't making any money. Switch from quality service to turn and burn. If Joe Waiter isn't making any money by racking up a good check and providing stellar service, he's going to simply try to get his diners in and out as quickly as possible so that he can get another bunch of diners in. This is how servers make money at such stellar establishments as TGI Fridays and Red Lobster. So, I'll be sitting out RW. Good oportunity to try that new asparagus recipie I saw in Gourmet....

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I am curious about this. Isn't it better for both the restaurants and the servers if the place is full during the week with people spending say 15 or 20% less than if the place is half full with people paying full price?

Obviously there is more work involved, but I would think that the extra money would be worth it, if only for that week.

I know in my one summer as a waiter (even though it was at a Pizza Hut), many years ago I remember hating the busy periods, but I liked them once they were over, assuming I wasn't being tipped in pennies (as happened a few times).

Bill Russell

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Our lunch servers are happy, making good money for a 4 hour shift.

Kitchen has been rolling, getting it out hot, fast and seasoned. During shift meetings we stress the importance of not making a mistake. M, T and Wed went great, huge (for us) cover counts, quality was there, service, the lot. Today, before the beatings, something didn't feel right. I am pretty superstitious, so I was bit concerned to say the least. At 11:50. (maybe the first order), a wrong entree was ordered, let's say a well done steak instead of something else. Just shut us down. Listening to the printer roll non-stop for the next expletive-laden 90 minutes after that was a sound to behold. We never quite caught up.

Cooks often conjure up images of the beatings amassed, today's were certainly not fit for a family show or even cable. But the best one was my garde manger Julio, saying in Spanish "Un Grande Combate."

God I hope no mistakes are made tomorrow.

Firefly Restaurant

Washington, DC

Not the body of a man from earth, not the face of the one you love

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I've had really good, enjoyable RW experiences. As someone who works for a non-profit, I rarely have the cash to eat with any frequency at several of the RW restaurants, and it is a nice opportunity to try a lot of different places and not kill the budget. Last year, I had planned ahead, saved up and went to 6 different places (three the time before that)--the standout was Equinox, where not only was the food great, but the FOH was particularly welcoming. When we save up to go out to eat--that's where we go (in DC).

The (not really much of a) low point was Galileo, where the food was fine, not spectacular, but the FOH seemed to treat the RWers as if we were a real inconvenience. As this is a restaurant that I get to visit occasionally with a (really generous) friend, I know that the food is often spectacular, and generally you get treated very nicely, so maybe it was an off day. Frankly, when you consistently produce really remarkable food, it seems that if there is any downward variation, you really suffer for it, particularly when lots of RWers have their hopes up, so I'm inclined to give them a break.

Other standouts from last RW were Butterfield 9, Tosca, and Mendocino Grille. Tosca has become a regular "special occasion" lunch place for a number of us working downtown, and keeps a tasting menu lunch now year-round, I believe.

I hope local restaurants keep participating--if for no other reason than RW allows the hundreds of interns working in DC to educate their tastebuds a bit and try out some serious restaurants.

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