The rise and fall and reinvention of Restaurant Week


(AP Photo/Hannah Drier)

BOSTON -- I was sitting in a hotel bar outside Boston this past weekend when the bartender handed me a pair of menus, one for the regular restaurant fare, the other for a $33 prix fixe featuring, among other entrées, roasted Gulf of Maine silver hake and a "Chou Croute Garnie" (sauerkraut, smoked pork chop, strasbourg sausages, boiled new potatoes).

“Our Dine Out Boston menu," the bartender offered.

“Oh,” I asked, “is that like Restaurant Week?”

“It’s like Restaurant Week, but it’s not Restaurant Week, because Restaurant Week was becoming Restaurant Month."

Confusion ensued.

“So this is in addition to Restaurant Week?”

“No, this is Restaurant Week. But we don't call it that any more.”

“Now it’s called Dine Out Boston?”

Yes, the local Restaurant Week – which hasn't been a single week for years, in just about any city – is now called Dine Out Boston. The idea has followed the inevitable trajectory of many great trends, from novelty to broad embrace to backlash to reinvention.

Most cities are still wallowing in that third stage. Here's Business Insider on "why New York foodies hate Restaurant Week." TIME more sweepingly concluded last year that restaurants from Atlantic City to Toledo hate it. The Washington City Paper wondered this winter whether the whole idea was a rip-off. Here, meanwhile, are your local Restaurant Week takedowns in Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and Denver.

The complaints are pretty consistent. Restaurant Week occurs too often and lasts too long. It brings out "amateur eaters" who tip poorly, crowd out regular customers, and seldom return beyond deal season. Restaurants give them small portions, boring menus, and the cheapest cuts of meat. Worst of all, the strict price points spoil all the fun: The white table-cloth restaurants can't figure out how to get in three good courses under $38, while the kinds of places that normally sell $12 burgers could never offer a "deal" at that price anyway.

"We had a significant number of our restaurants – a hundred of them easily – that could not really come up with real value when we set the price points ourselves," says Pat Moscaritolo, the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has run Restaurant Week in town since 2001. "If you’re not giving them real value, not only are you not making them customers for life, they’re going to go to your present customers and tell them 'don’t come back.'"

So Boston re-imagined the basic economics of the promotion and rebranded it this year, a strategy further designed to support the city's push to become a "culinary destination" ("I hate when people say Beantown!" Moscaritolo says. "It’s just a personal thing I don’t like. 'Oh yeah, great! Banked beans – in Boston!'"). Now the event is trying to sever ties with both the local boredom over Restaurant Week and the bland national name. "Dine Out Boston," if nothing else, also ditches the false pretense that this thing lasts just one week.

In the spirit of copying good ideas – Moscaritolo believes Boston originally borrowed Restaurant Week from New York – other cities will no doubt now be tempted to do what Boston has done, improving on the concept while killing off the name. There is still something worthwhile, after all, to the economic-development exercise of introducing new chefs and diners en masse, even in the era of ubiquitous daily deals.

Boston's revamped version includes three price points for dinner ($28, $33, or $38) and lunch ($15, $20, or $25), with some people calling for even more variety. That at least opens the field a little wider. One rogue neighborhood in town is still sticking to the old Restaurant Week model. But Moscaritolo says 190 restaurants in the region participated in the first Dine Out Boston. That's down from last year, but he figures many restaurateurs were waiting to see what would happen.

Now if other cities are watching, too, they at least can't replicate the new name to exhaustion. "Well," Moscaritolo says, "they could do Dine Out DC in Washington. Or DC Dines Out."

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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