Does Restaurant Week Need To Die?

Weary of mass-produced meals, Donna Garlough ponders the true value of the discount-dining bonanza.

MAYBE RESTAURANT WEEK AND I started off on the wrong foot. My first experience was circa 2003; my fiancé and I had booked a table at Excelsior (now closed, but an “It” spot back then) — a place that, as twentysomethings, we’d never been able to afford. We sat down, giddy with anticipation of transcendent food and service all for the bargain price of about 30 bucks. Then our server arrived. “Chicken or pork?” she barked. It felt like we were on an airplane.

I know, not every meal goes this way, and the promotion does present some superb deals. But given how much work it takes to find them, I’ve all but given up.

From a business standpoint, I get it. When Restaurant Week launched 10 years ago, it was a way to help the city’s eateries fill tables during the slow month of March. Diners, in turn, would get to enjoy some of Boston’s best cooking at a deep discount. Problem is, now the concept feels like a relic of a long-gone restaurant scene. Thanks to the post-bubble economy and the gastropub and brasserie boom of the past five years, good meals are now available at low prices all year.

Worse, after a decade of trying to create affordable plates, many restaurants have just gotten lazy. To accommodate the $33 tab, a lot of high-end places serve cheaper cuts and dumbed-down versions of the usual fare. (My husband and I now joke about the “standard” Restaurant Week menu: some kind of pork chop or some sort of salmon; dessert is almost always panna cotta or crème brûlée.) And then there are all the low-end restaurants that have jumped on the promo; when even your local pub offers a prix fixe of lumpy chowder and rubbery shrimp scampi, you know you’ve crossed over into scam territory.

Of course, customers are as much to blame. Discounts tend to bring out bargain-seekers (read: bad tippers), and two weeks of sorry customer behavior is enough to make any restaurateur frustrated. Consequently, many of them quietly revile the whole deal. Some spots, like Craigie on Main, run their own promotions, while others serve “anti–Restaurant Week” menus.

Plenty of chefs remain enthusiastic about the event, though — including Tremont 647’s Andy Husbands. “I love it. We get lots of new people coming in, and it’s a way to introduce them to us,” he says. “And then they realize they can dine with us at that price point, anyway.”

Sel de la Terre chef Louis DiBiccari acknowledges the shortcomings and seeks to avoid the pitfalls. “Restaurant Week always frustrated me as a consumer. But as a chef, I look forward to it,” he says. “It’s an incredible marketing opportunity.” He notes, though, that it’s up to both diners and chefs to ensure a good meal. “[As a customer], you have to do your homework and know which chefs will not compromise. And as a chef, you can’t take a vacation during Restaurant Week. It’s not just about bringing in money during this promotion. Everyone, regardless of how much they spend, is going to tell people about their experience.”

As for me? I’ll probably venture out to one or two of the prix-fixe meals this year, but that’s about it. I’m all for supporting restaurants — I’ll just be doing it in April instead.