When a group of New York chefs and restaurateurs put together a discounted dining promotion for delegates at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, little did they know that it would become an integral part of the city's dining scene and spawn similar programs across the country.
NYC Restaurant Week, which the city's tourism bureau claims was the first program of its kind, marks its 25th anniversary this month. The summer season will run from July 24 through Aug. 18. NYC & Company estimates that more than 70 U.S cities and 20 countries now offer Restaurant Weeks, giving diners a chance to explore their local dining scenes through special menus with multicourse meals at reduced prices.
New York's program—first organized by Joe Baum of the Rainbow Room and restaurant guide publisher Tim Zagat—has evolved significantly since 1992, when it lasted only four days and featured just under 100 participants offering lunches for $19.92.
This year, 390 restaurants are participating, spanning 34 different cuisines in 42 neighborhoods throughout all five boroughs. This variety is one of the most appealing parts of the program, according to Chris Heywood, senior vice president of global communications at NYC & Company. “It really is almost a mirror against what the city is,” said Heywood, who has helped oversee the program for about a decade. “It’s a city that’s defined by diversity, and I think that is very present in our food scene.”
Prices, which originally rose 1 cent per year, have increased too, now $29 for a three-course prix-fixe lunch and $42 for dinner. A winter season for Restaurant Week was added in the early 2000s.
A new feature this year, the Summer Tasting Series, consists of four events at different restaurants with exclusive tasting menus and wine pairings; proceeds from the $75 tickets go toward charities such as City Harvest, Citymeals on Wheels and Food Bank NYC.
The success of NYC Restaurant Week has inspired similar events in major cities (Miami Spice, Dine Out Boston, dineL.A. and Las Vegas Restaurant Week, to name just a few), as well as regional programs in places such as Long Island and New York's Hudson Valley and even smaller local Restaurant Weeks in suburban towns.
Miami Spice, for example, began in 2001 as an economic stimulus plan after 9/11, according to William Talbert III, president & CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. That program has since grown from 40 participants to more than 230, with lunch and brunch for $23 and dinner for $39, "reflecting the best of our community’s evolving and growing multicultural culinary scene, inspiring chefs to bring their finest to the table,” Talbert told Wine Spectator via email.
In New York, 12 of the original 1992 participants will take part in the program this year, including Wine Spectator Grand Award winner Tribeca Grill.
“It does bring in new customers,” wine director David Gordon said via email. “Even though we have been around for so long, there are still a lot of people who have never been to Tribeca Grill.”
Gordon says guests tend to opt for bottles in the $40 to $60 range, but that some go for more expensive wines once they browse Tribeca Grill’s 2,200 selections. “A guest can come in and have a great prix-fixe dinner for $42 and then splurge on one of our many wines with bottle age that are at a fair price,” he said.
Also returning this year is veteran participant Delmonico’s Restaurant, where director of sales and marketing Carin Sarafian views Restaurant Week as an opportunity to introduce customers to the Best of Award of Excellence–winning list.
“During this promotion, guests may sample wine they may have never discovered had they not participated in Restaurant Week,” Sarafian said via email. “We like to think that our wine, coupled with our cuisine and service, make our guests return even after Restaurant Week is over.”
Incorporating wine into Restaurant Week is up to the discretion of each restaurant. A number of restaurants offer discounts on featured bottles or a set of suggested pairings by the glass for each dish on the fixed-price menus.
At Best of Award of Excellence winner Morrell Wine Bar & Café, general manager and wine director Anna-Christina Cabrales is crafting both red and white pairings for the prix-fixe meal, plus dessert pairings included alongside chocolate truffles or crème brûlée for dinner.
Cabrales says Restaurant Week helps attract both locals and tourists. “They’re definitely looking for menus that are well-composed and of value, and they don’t have to make too many decisions,” she said. “They want to find something that’s exciting.”
No matter how guests personalize their Restaurant Week experience, Heywood says it’s all about enjoying New York in the company of family and friends: “One of the things we really want to highlight about this program is the connective experience that the dining brings … the attributes of actually dining face-to-face.”