San Diego’s Restaurant Week runs for two weeks in September and January–two generally slow months for restaurants. Much is made of the event that began in 2004, sponsored by the San Diego County Chapter of the California Restaurant Association (SDCCRA) that organizes and provides the press for the restaurants that serve a prix fixe two-course lunch for $10, $15 or $20 or a three-course dinner for $20, $30 or $40, all depending on the restaurant. More than 200 restaurants took part in week one (just ending today, September 21), and week two runs from September 23 until the 28th with more than 150 dining choices.
The idea of restaurant week began in 1992 when the late restaurateur Joe Baum and Tim Zagat (yes, that Zagat) thought it would be a gesture of good will to the 15000 reporters in New York who were there to cover the Democratic convention. It was a four day affair–now counted in months rather than days–that grew to cities and towns around the country, many coordinated by city groups, restaurant associations or local community organizations. The various reasons for such events include: increase tourist traffic, help restaurants through slow months and allow diners to try places they may have heard about and want to try and hopefully return for another meal.
In San Diego, as in some other places, it’s “pay to play” for the restaurants. First, to participate a restaurant must be a member in good standing of the SDCCRA. The approximate membership price for a 50-seat restaurant with mid-range prices is $590, based on annual revenue. As a member there is a registration cost for the restaurant’s inclusion for press and other publicity that ranges from $400 to $1000. Those early bird prices depend on whether a restaurant serves lunch, dinner or both, and wants to participate in one or two months. The Association also presents those Gold Medallion awards we hear about in May after their annual dinner. And you can’t get a medallion if you’re not a member, so how important is the award when it’s insiders voting yearly for the same restaurants? (Buzz wrote about this a few years back).
Second, while that special menu for dinner or lunch may be $10, $30 or $40, etc., remember that price does NOT include gratuity, tax or beverage. Thus you may end up with bill closer to $20, $40 or $50 (or more). Is it a bargain? You can decide. Is it a hassle? Perhaps. Is the food as good during this special week? Maybe, or maybe not, because the restaurant tends to be full, service may suffer, and so could the food. Jan Borkum (“proud mom” of Tracy Borkum) at the SDCCRA said they have stressed to restaurants to put their best food and service forward after complaints in earlier years of skimpy portions and lousy service. And based on the experience of one meal during a busy week, does that bring repeat business to the restaurant as many restaurateurs expect?
Third, note that many restaurants choose not to be an Association member, so they don’t participate. In North Park, such places as Urban Solace‘s chef/owner Matt Gordon prides himself on serving terrific food all the time and years ago knew that joining the lobby group (the primary function of the California Restaurant Association), was not for him. Jayne’s Gastropub and Finch’s Bistro and Wine Bar in La Jolla aren’t members either. Instead, Gordon and many other restaurants around town serve their regular menus or their own their versions of a prix fixe menu during the week. Many times you may spend less and eat well, with good service at the non-member places.
Farmhouse Cafe however, decided this year to join the Association for the benefits and help it gives small business owners especially when it comes to understanding the constantly changing laws, rules and regulations affecting the industry. They, along with many other participants, have the prix fixe special menu along with their regular menu during the two weeks.
A final observation: San Diego’s restaurants depend on the support of us, the diners, whether we’re eating a fish taco or a filet mignon, during restaurant week or not. Buzz wants to know your experiences during this restaurant week–whether a diner or a restaurateur. Diners: Did you try a new place? If so, would you return? Restaurateurs: Was the week successful for you, staff and do you expect to see new faces once the hoopla dies down? Oh, Yelpers take note: Please don’t ding a restaurant you’re trying for the first time during restaurant week…it’s just not nice.