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Restaurant Week 2008


The first of two six-day stretches of low-cost, high-end eating opportunities is nearly upon us

FORTUNE MAGAZINE recently reported that the 420,000 residents of the city of Abu Dhabi, in the oil-endowed United Arab Emirates, are worth some $17 million each. They don’t need Restaurant Week. We do.

San Diego is the city where $50 entrées fail to raise eyebrows (at least among those who order them), and the ultra-deluxe, wine-included prix fixe dinners at La Valencia’s Sky Room are $200 per person. Downtown, a simple meal of pizza and a glass of wine can cost more than a ticket to nearby Petco Park. And it’s not getting cheaper.

Restaurant Week provides tasty relief from sticker shock for the thousands—many, many thousands, in fact—of locals who hunger to experience expense-account joints but can’t bring themselves to trade the price of a roundtrip ticket to New York for dinner for two. And in 2008, Restaurant Week will offer two six-day holes in the calendar when dinners at top spots like El Bizcocho, George’s California Modern and Tapenade cost just $40 for three courses, as opposed to the usual tariffs. Many of the 130 or so eateries participating in the January 27–February 2 and June 22-27 events are pricing their multi-option menus at $30.

First celebrated locally in January 2005, Restaurant Week caught on fast and caught many restaurateurs by surprise, since it proved quite the marketing coup to introduce so many new customers to establishments that had seemed too costly to patronize. In fact, at one-of-a-kind places like Le Fontainebleau at the Westgate, the mostly first-time guests definitely looked like kids in a candy store. By 2007, Restaurant Week attracted no fewer than 200,000 guests, and since the event will occur twice this year, that number easily could double—or better.

Bertrand Hug, whose Mille Fleurs and Bertrand at Mister A’s eateries are so deluged by reservation-seekers he hires extra employees to answer the telephones, says of the event, “It proves to people that you don’t have to be a billionaire to eat at my restaurants. We get to show off our regular menu and prove we’re not even as expensive as most steakhouses. Restaurant Week is a wonderful way to showcase a restaurant.”

Like many of his fellows in the upper ranks of local restaurateurs, Hug is going the $40-per-person route this year. When Restaurant Week was first introduced, all participants charged the same $30 and were required to offer three-course dinners, with a minimum of three options per course. From the start, some participating eateries feared the $30 tab was unprofitable, at best, and “lowballed” guests by offering menus inferior to their regular fare. Nobody was fooled, complaints went around, and the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association, which organizes the event (the other sponsors are the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau and San Diego Magazine), introduced the two-tiered pricing system.

A lot of socks are going to be knocked in 2008, evidently, and the pricier the neighborhood, the more likely a plush Restaurant Week meal will cost $40——plus drinks, tax and tip, of course.

Local Restaurant Association president Mike Mitchell, general manager of Oceanaire Seafood Room, upgraded his establishment to the $40 option this year. His chef, Brian Malarkey, earned considerable fame last summer as a contestant on television’s Top Chef, and Mitchell says, “Brian really wants to show off, so we raised the price to $40 so he can knock everybody’s socks off.”

A lot of socks are going to be knocked in 2008, evidently, and the pricier the neighborhood, the more likely a plush Restaurant Week meal will cost $40—plus drinks, tax and tip, of course. North County is one such region, and among participating places there, Arterra, BlueFire Grill at La Costa Resort, Epazote Oceanview Steakhouse, Firenze Trattoria, Market Restaurant + Bar, Pacifica Del Mar, Pamplemousse Grille and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse Del Mar all have opted for the upper price.

BUT THERE IS general agreement that Restaurant Week feasts are bargains at either price, and as Mitchell says, “So many locals make it a festive week and go out to dine every night. They revel in the enjoyment of dining.” The San Diego native, whose decades of experience include stints managing Grant Grill and the now-defunct Star of the Sea, adds, “Restaurant Week is a local phenomenon, and it’s put on for the locals. We purposely pick the dates with locals in mind. We choose dates when there aren’t other major activities in town, so people can navigate the city and get out to eat.” He freely admits the dates chosen are slack times when “restaurants can use the business.”

New York introduced Restaurant Week, and the concept spread to other foodie destinations like San Francisco and Seattle. That it came to San Diego, which can be highly resistant to “foreign” innovations, is due to San Diego Magazine and Ingrid Croce, who was then the president of the local California Restaurant Association chapter and helped craft an event that from the start was almost universally acknowledged an “overwhelming success” by participating restaurants. This sort of success tempts industry leaders to think big.

“Restaurant Week is for locals, but it’s also about putting San Diego on the map as a dining destination,” says Mitchell. “People travel from all over the world to New York for their Restaurant Week. We want to establish San Diego as a destination and highlight the talents of our industry.”

Christian Graves, the soft-spoken, highly focused chef at Jsix in Hotel Solamar downtown, participated in Restaurant Weeks in San Francisco before coming to San Diego. He says, “I think Restaurant Weeks are fantastic because they dangle carrots in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise come to your restaurant.”

Adding a fact some chefs and restaurateurs would prefer to keep quiet, Graves says, “Restaurants can customize menus to make them work for every body”—by which he means menus that are appetizing and reflect the place’s culinary approach, yet also are profitable. (Interestingly, despite Graves’ opinions, Jsix chose not to join Restaurant Week this year.)

It’s always wise to have reservations about an unfamiliar eatery, but during Restaurant Week, it will be even wiser simply to have reservations. Don’t leave home without them!

Find the eateries taking part in San Diego Restaurant Week, along with menus of the $30 and $40 choices, at sandiegorestaurantweek.com.

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