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.

If you’ve yearned to try a new restaurant, or one that’s been around and now has a new chef,  check out San Diego Restaurant Week,  September 18 to 23.  This season, many restaurants offer $10, $15 or $20 lunches along with dinners for $20, $30 or $40.  Places where a new chef is in place:  1500 Ocean (Aaron Martinez) and The Shores (Amy DiBiase).  Some lunch spots include Bali Hai , Bertrand at Mr. A’s and Flavor Del Mar.

Point Loma loses La Playa Bistro and the cafe it recently opened next door.  They closed their doors September 8, due to the economy (as noted on a letter posted on their doors).

 

It appears that some San Diego restaurateurs think of Restaurant Week as an easy way to fill seats without having to give good service or present a menu that showcases the regular menu.  And many customers are grumbling about the added 20 percent “service charge” or tip, especially at the $40 dinners.  Diners beware that a $40 dinner does not include tax and tip or beverages, so, at the bare minimum, your tab will be roughly $50 before you’ve sipped even a soda. With that tab, you might want to consider dining off the regular menu, if that is available.

Restaurants that put that 20 percent tip on the bill with service that doesn’t match, do themselves a huge disservice to diners. Why?  Because many people use this week as a time to try a new place, but if they feel they’ve been ripped off because of so-so service or an unispired menu, they won’t return, ever.

Let’s hear from you about your experiences during this week and what do you think of the three-tiered pricing?  New York, (where this idea began in the 1990’s) now has more than 250 restaurants at a fixed $35 dinner, plus tax and tip.  Would this be a better idea for San Diego’s Restaurant Week?

San Diego’s Restaurant Week starts Sunday, January 11 and runs until the 16th with more than 150 venues serving three-course prix-fixe dinners at $20, $30 and $40; check the website for menus and prices.  If you’ve been wondering about a particular place and just haven’t made there, this is the time to try something new.

Should you find yourself traveling to New York City soon, their restaurant week runs from January 18th to the 23rd and then again from the 25th to the 30th with more than 250 possible choices.  New York is the place the idea started back in 1992 and restaurants serve lunch for $24.07 and dinners are all $35 for three-course prix-fixe meals.

For political and foodie junkies, the bipartisan Senate committee that plans the inaugural luncheon after the president is sworn in, will be eating a seafood stew, pheasant and duck and apple cinnamon sponge cake washed down with California  wines from  Duckhorn, Goldeneye and Korbel.  Here’s the menu with recipes in case you decide to have a party.  And for the historical side of things, check out the 2001 Inaugural Luncheon.