The year 1992 may seem very distantly in the past. A gallon of gas was just over a dollar, the price of a car was around $16,000, there was no Twitter to speak of, no constant checking and rechecking of emails nor ubiquitous mobile devices, and Oprah Winfrey was still on television. Indeed, a lot has changed; but with the Clintons back in the political spotlight, again running a presidential campaign, nostalgia is more immediate for some.
To be clear, this blog is not at all about politics, but it may surprise you that the history of restaurant week is. The 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York City spawned an agreement from restaurateurs to each create prix-fixe menus to draw in clientele visiting the city, in search for quality food at a good price. After all, people have to eat, right? The offer included three courses for $19.92 and was successful enough that it became a twice a year event that is now replicated in cities across the country.
The original deal has developed into something else, though. This year’s DNC is held in Philadelphia, not New York City, but restaurant week is still taking place at this very moment (until August 19), as has been the case for the last 24 years. What, then, is the reason it has remained? The answer is simple: it actually helps some restaurants introduce themselves to new customers, who may not have otherwise dined with them, or given them thought. People develop favorites and aren’t shy about sticking to what they know, even in the big apple, where there are over 20,000 places to grab a bite to eat. However, with a number of restaurants sharing the same price point, now $29 for the three-course lunch and $42 for dinner, the risk of trying something new is rather low, and actually quite cunning. Options abound and planners of this event have extended it to almost a month instead of just a week, increasing the chances for diners to visit multiple restaurants. It’s a public relations win, in many respects.
Not everyone has bought into the idea, though. Culinary experts and critics have lamented lackluster menus and scarce recipes, which some have said only cater to “amateur” eaters and rather infrequent diners. But that’s actually the point. Restaurant week occurs during slow times of the year, in terms of dining, hospitality and entertainment. Something to keep business steady during this lull is necessary, and it’s the exact reason why other cities from DC to Taiwan have found it helpful. Afterall, those for whom the experience of eating out, perusing menus and selecting three course meals are a regular experience, there is no need to create a promotion–those people will come anyhow.
That said, not every restaurant benefits from participating, and many don’t. It’s about need as much as it is about tradition. For some, restaurant week has been a saving grace, especially following the economic downturn in 2008. A quick look at the graph above shows just how hard the industry was hit. It has since recovered, but family style and fine dining restaurants are trailing behind the growth of fast casual options. This is a way to remain competitive.