Restaurant Week: Value is in the Eye of the Beholder

March 18, 2010

 
 
Every March and August, I make a slew of restaurant reservations and invite my fellow foodies out to revel in a good meal – or a few – in honor of Restaurant Week. They know they can rely on me to remind them of the festivities, and I know there are two camps among my friends: the joiners and the abstainers. The former see the event as a bargain, a way to expand their restaurant horizons. The latter don’t see the bargain because to them, the occasion is more than just a $33.10 three-course meal once they add in wine, tip, and more food than they want or need. 

Restaurant Week started years ago as a way for restaurants to increase business during down weeks by offering three-course prix fixe lunches and dinners at special prices. At one point, the price was based on the year; I remember dinners costing $20.02 in 2002, though inflation has made this relationship less direct lately, so dinner prices are now in the $30.00 range. With Boston’s heavy student population, spring break is one factor in timing, and summer vacations and the last slow weeks before the back-to-school drive the August timing. At least that’s what I read when I first started enjoying restaurant week.

As an industry professional, I see both the bargain price allure and the overdoing it argument, but my desire to support the industry while eating good food wins out. Taking myself out of the equation, here are the two differing views courtesy of two members of my dining circle.

Foodie on a Budget

One peer I spoke to is a devoted student and lover of food who is in the midst of a career transition and not working full-time. While finances are a factor in her decision, she says that even when she was employed full time, Restaurant Week did not entice her. “I never do it. One or twice I’ve gone, but I just do not do it. To me it doesn’t seem like such a bargain; it feels like it’s a great way to lure you in and I spend more than I usually do for dinner. I don’t order three courses usually, so I just find it gets to be too much.”

This friend has done the math of adding in wine and the tip, which brings her tab to well over $33.00. She admits that it would be a good way to get to dine at out-of-reach restaurants. “I regret that I don’t think of it for those really pricey restaurants – that would be worth it. But at most of them, I could get away with not spending $60.00 by the time I am done. My perception is it’s a little bit of a rip off – at least for me. And I’m usually broke so I am the queen of meeting for apps and a glass of wine! I could enjoy any of these restaurants anyway – I still wouldn’t go out and spend that much.”

Dining Enthusiast

At the other end of the spectrum is the appreciative diner, who recognizes the bargain and is grateful for the opportunity. “I think it’s a great way to try out a restaurant you normally wouldn’t have thought of.”  This restaurant week, she went to Toscano, one of her local favorites on Boston’s Beacon Hill. “They always do a good job and especially in this economy it’s a great way to go out to dinner.” Her meal:  a smoked salmon crostini appetizer, a scallop, leek and spinach entree, and a white chocolate blueberry tart for dessert.

“We had dinner, and split a bottle of wine that was $30.00 so it was cheap, like $60.00 each. With tip it was $63.00 and I overtipped.” This diner is a former server at a high-end restaurant, and is conscious about tipping servers for good service, and based on regular prices when meals are on special. “If you live in Boston and you go to a restaurant of this caliber, that’s cheap. It was a great meal and the server was fantastic. If I were waiting tables it’d be amateur night” and again, this woman knows about difficult customers.  Based on Toscano’s regular prices, her appetizer and dinner would normally come to $47.00. Assuming a conservative dessert price of $9.00 as no menu listing is available, the pricetag would total $56.00 vs. the $33.10 she paid.

Restaurant Week Math

Savvy consumer that I am, I know there are restaurants that are not a bargain for this auspicious week (hint – if you order salad, pasta and a dessert during Restaurant Week, you are not getting a large discount). However, so far this restaurant week, my meals have fallen into the bargain category.

On Monday night I visited Olives restaurant, where there were more selections on the restaurant week menu than the regular menu. I ordered Lobster Bisque, Crispy Confit Duck, and a Chocolate Tart. Based on their normal prices a three course meal would range from $48.50 for the lowest-priced menu items, to $59.45 for the highest.

On Tuesday, I had lunch at Caliterra in downtown Boston, and the meal was less for all three courses than it would have been for just one entrée on the regular menu. I ordered Lobster Bisque (yes, again), Scallops, and Chocolate Truffle Cake (yes, more chocolate, too). Caliterra’s seafood entrées are regularly $26.00 to $28.00, and the three-course lunch was $20.10. If I had ordered an appetizer for $12.00, my bill for two courses would be $40.00, and with dessert, closer to the $50.00 mark. 

While it can be tough for our wallets and waistlines to accommodate eating like this as a rule, Restaurant Week provides several reasons for those looking for excuses to celebrate.

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