Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why you won't see me out for the next two restaurant weeks

Its Restaurant Week time in Boston. This year its been extended to two weeks: March 14-19 & March 21-26. (Everyone in the industry, or who has previously worked in food service is shuttering now at this point.)
More stress, more work, more problems and bad tipping.

Restaurant Week is designed to get new clientele into an establishment. They do this by offering a cheaper prixe fixe (pre-fixed or set) menu. You are not going to get a chef's signature dish. You are not going to get even a smaller version of said classic. You are going to get a dish made with cheaper ingredients because the price point is significantly less.
Personally, I don't want to go to a restaurant who is running a new/cheaper menu for the first time - ever. Most food writers wait several months before writing up a new restaurant for a reason. It takes a while to work the kinks out: to train all of the kitchen staff on a new dish, figure out timing, plating and to make sure that what was conceptualized before service and be prepared during a dinner rush, in a 100F+ kitchen.

Most restaurants also run their regular menu during Resturant Week.
Why does this matter?
It in effect is doubling the work of servers and cooks. Servers need to spend more time at each table explaining the different menus. Servers then need to re-explain why the foie gras dish that made this restaurant so special is not on the Restaurant Week menu, and no, it cannot be substituted for the chicken main dish. Kitchen staff also need to juggle the timing of a prixe fixe menu and the regular menu - a doable feat, but not easy when half the table orders a la carte and the other off the prixe fixe.

So now you  have a table that has taken at least 2x as long to order. You have extra time added to the entering of the order into the computer. More time is necessary for the expediter to call out the order and figure out the different firing times. What happens now? Diners start thinking that this restaurant's service is "slow."

In Massachusetts minimum wage is $8.00 an hour; for servers, waiters and waitresses its $2.63
Most diners partake in Restaurant Week because its a perceived bargain. This often translates into poor tipping. Long waits translate into poor tipping. Poor tipping makes for unhappy servers who are already doing double work. Not tipping at least 15%, 20 is not generous, its standard, means that servers have to pick up more shifts and work additional jobs just to break even.

Are there restaurants that do an amazing job during Restaurant Week despite all of these factors? Yes.
Does this mean I am going to participate? HELL NO

The nail in my Restaurant Week coffin
With my need to abstain from all proteins glutenous, there is no way you could get me to go out to eat.
Making substitutions on prixe fixe menus is often not allowed, that said, many places are good at accommodating diners with dietary restrictions under normal circumstances. I am not going to attempt to order a gluten-free meal in the middle of chaotic Restaurant Week for the same reason that I don't go to a new restaurant I haven't checked out on a busy Friday or Saturday night: I just don't know if I can trust them.

Its not that I think anyone is malicious, its just that I have to be able to trust the server, the expediter, the cooks and the chef. I need to effectively explain myself to the server in a way that s/he can relay that into the computer system or directly to the expediter. That person has to be able to clearly and quickly relay this to the cooks. No matter where you go, kitchens are rarely comprised of persons just speaking English. So I am putting my trust and my health into the hands of at least 4 people. 4 people who are juggling multiple jobs, multiple menus and with many other tables and diners to look after.
Can it be done? Yes.
I am willing to get served a "meh" meal with a possible side of digestive upset for 2 weeks? No.

Anyone want to go to the movies instead?


  1. I have to say, to offer an alternative perspective, as a broke gal in her twenties drowning in student loan debt, I love Restaurant Week. As a starving, broke student in Boston two years, it was the only time I was able to even come close to affording to taste the food at some restaurants. And if I'm getting their "meh" version, I'm cool with it because it's still better than the low-budget rice and greens I usually eat all year long. And it's definitely better than a glass of bread and some water (which is what I would normally order if my wealthir friends pressured me to eat there on a regular night). Now that I'm a young, broke professional in western Mass, I absolutely relish Restaurant Week in Northampton. No way I could afford the fancy French place under any other circumstances period. I appreciate being able to be included amongst the diners at high end restaurants I would not have a hope of even getting whiff of.

    As for the servers, people that don't tip well during Restaurant Week are probably the same people that don't tip well in general (For example, not tipping the bartender because it's open bar. Revolting). If anything, it mostly sucks for the servers because the amount per bill is much lower, thus 20% is a lower dollar amount. I tip my usual 20-30%, depending on the service (I actually have only ever tipped less than 20% for truly horrendous service that was actually the server's fault - not for things like a long wait or poor food).

    So I guess my counterpoint is that it's only one week (or two in Boston now it seems) a year and it's nice to be able to pretend I can afford to eat at decent restaurants for that one week. I can relish the fact that I can sample and afford all three courses (Dessert! Such a luxury!), even if it is just the chicken and not the foie. And then it's back to limited eating out on a budget till next year.

    End Counterpoint.

  2. I have been on both sides, and I totally see your point. There are a ton of places I have never eaten at and would love to and there is an allure of a cheaper price during restaurant week, but I still don't think its a fair representation of the restaurant. A decent meal, sure, but if I want to go to a place to see what a chef(s) can do, I want to see it and taste it. Restaurant week isn't even a "watered down" version, its a completely different beast.

    I see your rather valid point, but I am going to come back with: go during non-restaurant week and sit at the bar and order an appetizer and/or a dessert. This isn't possible at every place, but its a good entry way into higher-end dining.

    RE: poor service
    I think servers are more and more open to some feedback. If you are working front of the house its WAY more useful to hear that the fries are cold than to have a crappy tips from all his/her tables all night for "no reason".

  3. no way i would go out during restaurant week. yuck. a side note - did you know waiters in SF make $9.75 per hour? Highest paid servers in the country! Total nonsense!