This week marks the 10th anniversary of Philadelphia’s Restaurant Week, a marketing initiative started by the Center City District in 2003 to get butts in the seats of area restaurants. Center City District is largely responsible for transforming our downtown area from a graffiti-covered, crime-ridden, trash-strewn abyss that pretty much shut down at 5 p.m. each night into what it is today. And they’ve brought many great ideas to the table. But Restaurant Week is just not one of them, and 10 years in, it’s time to pull the plug.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the basic concept of Restaurant Week, here goes. Restaurants that fall within the boundaries of the Center City District pay the CCD a fee to participate, and those restaurants are included in the CCD’s listings for the two-week event, which kicked off on Sunday. The restaurants are required to offer a three-course set menu (almost always appetizer, entree and dessert) valued at $55 to $65 for a fixed price of $35.
So, for instance, you could book a table at Zahav or Amada—both participants—for just $35 per person, not including tip and taxes, of course. A steal! Or maybe you’d notice a few participating restaurants that you’ve heard about but have never been to, like Spice 28 or Russet, and you make a reservation at one of those. This is a win-win, right? How could anyone complain about this?
“It’s a gimmick and a quick fix that in reality doesn’t give the diner any special deal,” wrote Vetri in an email to me last week. “Just smoke and mirrors to get them in the seat. I prefer slow and steady. Some people may get it, some not. I’m not bashing anyone. Just continuing to do what we do best: make the customer happy.”
Chris’ Jazz Cafe owner and chef Mark DeNinno has participated in Restaurant Week several times over the last decade—most recently last year—but says he’s done with it. “Most of it boils down to the math,” explains DeNinno, who also runs Premiere Restaurant Consulting.
“Figure the national average in restaurants is a nickel of profit on the dollar,” says DeNinno. “It costs you $150 to join Restaurant Week, so the first $3,000 that comes in is your break-even point. Now that nickel is a national average, but you’re putting up $55 in food for $35, so that profit could be even less. You have to bring in extra labor, you gotta run two menus, and then you just have to hope that they’re going to come back again when they’re not being offered discounted product.”
I reached out to one of the city’s many restaurant publicists to get her take on Restaurant Week. Some of her restaurants are participating. Some are not. “Fuck Restaurant Week,” she immediately responded, noting that she didn’t want to be identified. “To be honest, the only places that you’re getting a good deal are the steakhouses.” She explained that one of her restaurants had no interest in participating, because “they feel strongly about not dropping the quality of their product, and their menu is reasonably priced as is, so they just don’t feel that they can represent their product appropriately for the gimmick that is Restaurant Week.”
On Sunday night, I decided to head into Center City for the first night of Restaurant Week. I couldn’t get a table at Amada or Zahav. And I didn’t exactly want to eat at Bleu Martini, Cafe Nola or Bridget Foy’s. So I opted for The Dandelion, Stephen Starr’s excellent British pub on 18th Street.
Once my companion and I saw the special Restaurant Week menu, which featured dishes not normally served at the restaurant, we tossed those menus and ordered from the regular fare. The cost was about the same as if we had gone the Restaurant Week route, but we had the freedom of choice. No, we didn’t get two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts. But, really, who eats like that anymore? In the end, Restaurant Week’s biggest sin may be that it promotes an outdated way of dining.
One restaurant manager who just doesn’t understand what all of fuss about is Ettore Ceraso, the affable general manager of Davio’s Philadelphia, which has been a faithful Restaurant Week participant since the program’s inception. “It’s our opportunity to wow people,” says Ceraso, who estimates that his 145-seat Italian steakhouse sees a 40 percent increase in reservations on some nights during Restaurant Week . “If restaurants don’t put their best products in front of guests, then shame on them.”
What do you think about Restaurant Week? Vote in the Foobooz poll now.