Restaurant Week began in New York City in 1992 as a four-day promotion where diners could enjoy a prix fixe lunch for $19.92 at participating restaurants.
The original four-day event was targeted to the reporters attending that year’s Democratic National Convention. Founders expected it to be a short-term money-loser but hoped that it would have long-term PR benefit for New York and the restaurant industry.
It was successful beyond their wildest dreams and since then, Restaurant Week promotions have spread to Washington, DC; Boston; Chicago; Denver; Baltimore; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Salem, Mass.; Honolulu, Saratoga; Raleigh; San Francisco; Tucson; Phoenix; Kansas City; Las Vegas; Virginia Beach; Toronto; Madrid; London; Rome; Singapore – I could literally go on and on and on.
Clearly Restaurant Week seems to be good for restaurants, especially in filling the post-Holiday/pre-spring restaurant doldrums. The question, then, is what is it that Restaurant Week is out to accomplish?
Do they want to just fill tables during a traditionally quiet time? Good for participating restaurants – for the short run.
Or do they want to cultivate new returning customers? Good for participating restaurants and for diners like us – for the long run.
But I’m here for you and me. What I really care about, Fellow FoodBeest, is it good for us as the customer?
In Chicago this year, the Restaurant Week promotion is offering prix fixe menus for $22 lunches and dinners at $33 or $44. Most of the restaurants offer additions and add-ons from their traditional menu.
For the record, I’ve heard less-than-thrilled comments ranging from folks who tried the Restaurant Week menus – at pizza joints, at regional Mexican restaurants and even at the most highly respected and very upscale establishments:
- The restaurant week special is a little confusing. It said for lunch for 2 is $22 with a salad and a 9 inch pizza. it’s about 10% off. Neither great nor offensive.
- We tried all three entrees; all well cooked, but nothing special.
- The best dishes we had were the desserts, which we subbed in from the regular menu.
- The food was fine, just not spectacular. Really no big deal.
- Frankly, the food was underwhelming.
- The starters seemed like they’d been plated and waiting for a while.
- Based on this experience not sure I’d go back.
- The prix fixe deal isn’t a deal at all, The three most expensive courses offered on the $44 prix fixe were $45 if ordered from the regular menu.
It appears to be a great way for restaurant-goers like us to try a new or costly restaurant for less than it might normally cost. Maybe. Unless restaurants yawn, relax and dumb-down their menus and their outputs. The FoodBeest set out to find out.
We made a couple of reservations.
Piccolo Sogno, 464 North Halsted St., Chicago
First stop was Piccolo Sogno, a well-respected, popular Italian restaurant that seems to book up well in advance. The name means “little dream.” No comment.
We took a 9 pm reservation because it was all they had available at opentable.com, the on-line reservation system, but there were plenty of available tables when we arrived at about 8:40.
Note to self: next time call restaurant when you can’t get what you want online.
Piccolo Sogno’s Restaurant Week prix fixe was $44, but I have to say that, in spite of the great things I had heard about it, we were not at all impressed by the food.
Our waiter was highly enthusiastic about every menu item. He strongly steered me to the ribollita appetizer. A ribolilita is an Italian soup that is first cooked as a soup and then bread is added and it is cooked a second time until it is pretty dry. In this case it was a vegetable soup that was twice cooked and then served to me on a plate looking much like a grey omelet. It was rather tasteless and gritty where it had been burned on one side.
I ate maybe half, Fellow FoodBeest, and probably because I was just plain hungry. Mr. FB had a nice light salad of two varieties of radicchio plus arugula dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette. He’s trying to avoid dairy these days, so “hold the Parmesan shavings.”
My entree was a tagliatelle made of chestnut flour and what was described as a spiced wild boar ragu. Rather than a boar, it was a bore – also grey and with little flavor. So disappointing. FB had a flattened, grilled Cornish hen. It was rather dry, but better than mine. At least it had some color and contrast on the plate.
Mr. FB’s dessert was sorbetti: grape, mango and blood orange. He enjoyed the blood orange. I had a panna cotta. It was the best thing I was served.
Our zealous waiter must have let his motor run down, because never bothed to check back to see how the food was – even though my dishes went back to the kitchen barely touched. I hate it when what I am served in a restaurant is not as good as what I can make at home.
Not likely that we will return soon. Lost opportunity for the restaurant.
Perennial Virant, 1800 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago
Perennial Virant was our second Restaurant Week outing. It was our first time there since the transition to Chef Paul Virant.
Perennial Virant’s $33 prix fixe was a little different than the menu posted on-line. Mr. FB (still trying to avoid dairy) had the salad with fennel, radishes, pickled tomato vinaigrette (please hold the chevre) which was fine.
The winter squash soup was a delight: slightly spicy, but deeply flavorful. It was topped with a maple whipped cream that added a nice layer of sweetness, but there may have a been a bit too much of that topping for me. I’m kind of a savory gal as a rule.
I had the pork loin with smashed potatoes (the on-line menu says “pork belly”). The pork loin was unremarkable, except that it was maybe a teensy bit too salty for me and the smashed potatoes were very heavy on garlic. Mr. FB loved his whitefish with polenta and wilted greens.
We both had the rye flour apple crepes (mine with brown butter ice cream; his without). It was a nice light finish.
Neither of us were drawn to the chocolate Boston cream pie option. Kinda sorry now we didn’t try it.
My biggest complaint was that we felt a little rushed: it seemed like someone was always there to take our plates, even if we were not quite done, but by-and-large, the staff was affable and eager to please. We got cards with discounts for their weekend brunch.
It wasn’t perfect, but the food had much of the same feeling as the original Perennial, which we’ve enjoyed. All locally-sourced ingredients (we’d expect nothing less from a restaurant located across the street from the Green City Market!). Virant seems to have added a lot of “home”-canned and pickled ingredients that are a nice touch. We will return to this one.
Is there a Restaurant Week in your city, Fellow FoodBeest? Have you tried it? What’s been your experience? Share it all in the Comments section below.