It has been six years since I last wrote about Restaurant Week. Why? Because nothing has changed.
I will now write about Restaurant Week, because nothing has changed.
In the 20-odd years since it first popped up, Restaurant Week has been a hit on the East End. So much so that there’s two of them now, one in spring and one in fall and, as far as I can tell, participation by the area’s restaurant owners remains fairly solid.
I hate to recycle sentiments I’ve wandered through before, but allow me to recap for you how Restaurant Week is perceived by restaurant industry insiders before the doors open:
For the best restaurateurs in our region and their staffs, it is a love-hate relationship at best. They both love it because, if your restaurant is decent, you are packed for eight straight days in what is usually a major down period between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. That’s the upside.
The downside for the owner is that the profit margins in the Restaurant Week prix fixe pricing structure are shaved thinner than the Parmesan. This year it was $27.95 for a meal that under normal pricing at most of the restaurants participating would run $50 to $75 at least. But the dollars are there and anytime your restaurant is packed full, as long as you aren’t actually losing money, it’s a good thing, right?
The downside for staff is that bargain dinner prices usually means lower tips. So they are in the weeds as though it were summer every night to make basically the same money they could make on a mediocre off-season weekend night. But there’s the extra nights of decent pay so the net is a substantial gain—and a good waiter almost prefers to be in the weeds anyway.
The rub, or the game, of Restaurant Week for the customers is finding the restaurants that treat the price ceiling as an invitation to take their lumps, tighten their belts and be as creative as they can to present an experience as close to what one might find on any other night of the year, in terms of service, menu, food quality and atmosphere. Some pull it off smashingly. Some don’t make that effort because they realize that most of their Restaurant Week customers are going to come only during the bargain sales.
But is that really the point? On one hand, there’s the hope and real chance that at least a few customers will become new regulars. Literally one or two is justification for eating it that week, alone. But also, did you know that all those various extra-high-end Polo by Ralph Lauren and other related stores you see in the upscale malls and on the Main Streets of the Hamptons are really just big expensive advertisements? They’re not really intended to make profits themselves. They are branding to drive an image that gets the real money-makers into the outlet stores and Middle American malls to buy plain old button downs and golf shirts with the logo on the chest. If you own a fancy restaurant, that is the other way to look at Restaurant Week: It may not be bringing you much in the way of profits in and of itself, but it is feeding the impression of your restaurant that does drive customers to you, whether they be of the sort that can make a weekly reservation or will think of you on those most special of occasions when splurging on a fancy dinner out is warranted.
The old joke about those who half-ass Restaurant Week, which I wrote an entire column about once, is the chicken-salmon-pasta entrée trifecta. It’s not that many fine restaurants don’t have those dishes on their menu all the time; many do. But they aren’t the only thing and they are the lowest in food-cost, so when that is the entrée selection for Restaurant Week, it’s the Hallmark of a mailed-in menu that puts food-costs first and the peephole experience for diners second.
Sure, you get a Restaurant Week chicken at an elegant bastion of fine dining, it’s prepared by masterful chefs and you still get the experience of eating in the dining room at a fancy place. But isn’t that the most snobbish thing a restaurant manager or owner could say to justify to themselves why they insisted on maintaining food costs below 40 percent during restaurant week?
This past week I found myself with the rare occasion to not have an apron on and a grin-and-bear-it expression on my face as the throng battled for over-booked tables and barstools. I can report, at least, that the Stone Creek Inn is one of the places that truly plays hard during Restaurant Week and hits it out of the park.
The Friday night clientele at this longtime East Quogue spot would typically be a mix of older, well-heeled Westhampton-Quogue second-home owners, many of the men typically in sport jackets. The check average would be around $70 per person I’m going to guess, which is a healthy sum on par with Nick & Toni’s and American Hotel. For Restaurant Week, even on Friday, the menu was somewhat smaller than the usual menu, but only by an item or two on each side. It was the only menu of the night, for those who knew it was Restaurant Week and for those that didn’t and were just showing up for their usual visit. There was no “sorry, the Restaurant Week menu is available only until 6 p.m. on Friday night” that you would hear at far too many places who desperately want to short-change their Restaurant Week customers but don’t want to irritate their regulars by offering only chicken, salmon and pasta even though they’re eager to pay $60 for a sirloin. The chef, who I believe is also the owner, was patrolling the room shaking hands with regulars and newcomers alike.
So my hat’s off to the Stone Creek Inn and the others who take this approach to Restaurant Week. They get it. For those that don’t: I’ll have the salmon.