You can stick a fork in Restaurant Week.
After several years of declining participation and escalating complaints, the long-running Boston culinary event — which featured noted chefs serving up three-course meals at reasonable fixed prices — had become as stale as a day-old dinner roll.
Now organizers hope to whet appetites by rebranding Restaurant Week as Dine Out Boston and addressing a major issue restaurateurs had with the format: High-end establishments said the promotion’s one-price-fits-all rule made it difficult to offer signature dishes without losing money, while less expensive restaurants balked at the mandated $38 dinner tab. And many said the promotional meals were not generating the return business they expected.
“Restaurant Week was a terrible flop for us,” said Jeffrey Gates, a partner in the Aquitaine Group, whose roster of restaurants includes Aquitaine Bar a Vin Bistrot and Gaslight Brasserie du Coin. “It’s a great way to expose our restaurants to diners. I just felt that we lost track of value for the consumer.”
In response to disenchanted restaurant chefs and owners, the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau — which runs the event — said there will be a range of prices for Dine Out Boston, scheduled for March 16 to 21 and 23 to 28. Dinners can be offered for $28, $33, or $38, and lunch will cost $15, $20, or $25. Unlike before, there will be no requirements for the number of courses.
Started in 2001 to boost what was then a budding restaurant scene, the event quickly attracted thousands of customers to dining rooms throughout Boston and surrounding communities, where they could sample gourmet food at a deep discount. Most nights, it was nearly impossible to get a table at the trendiest and poshest places. Diners feasted on entrees like duck confit with bacon, lettuce and tomato panzanella in garlic aioli, and prosciutto-wrapped blue cod. And no matter what the food or venue, the price remained the same across the board, with modest adjustments.
The initial idea was to bring in more business during a notoriously slow week in August. Later, a week in March was added. Restaurant participation grew from 36 to a peak of 229 in 2010 before beginning to fade. This year, reintroduced as Dine Out Boston, 188 restaurants are expected to take part.
In its former incarnation, Restaurant Week took a hit in 2012 with the defection of well-known chef Michael Leviton. His decision to opt out caused some to rethink the wisdom of Restaurant Week. Leviton, who owns Lumière in Newton, said the local, sustainable, and organic foods he features were worth more than Restaurant Week prices.
“For years, we were known for a particular scallop dish,” he said. “When people come in and see their choices are soup and salad and a pasta on the Restaurant Week menu, they want to know where the scallops are. For three-course for $33, I’m sorry, you don’t get hand-harvested diver scallops. The math doesn’t add up.”
The novelty of Restaurant Week also wore off as websites that offer discounted meals — such as Groupon, Living Social, and Amazon Local — became more popular.
In 2013, the cost of dinner was raised to $38 in response to criticism like Leviton’s. But that led to some grumbling from the owners of less expensive restaurants. Pat Moscaritolo, the convention and visitors bureau’s chief executive, said the group realized changes were needed, especially in the pricing structure.
“Now you have more leeway on the price and you can give people more options and better values,” said Nick Varano, owner of the Strega restaurants. “When there are more options, you’re going to attract more customers.”
Gates also is pleased with the flexibility. The average per-person dinner check at his company’s Gaslight restaurant in Boston’s South End is $45.50, including a beverage, he said, which meant Restaurant Week’s mandated $38 price — without a drink — wasn’t much of a bargain.
“We’re excited that it’s back down again, and we think that it should be,” he said. “That’s what the consumer wants, and that’s what they are expecting.”
Chef Daniel Bruce, of the Meritage and Rowes Wharf Sea Grille at the Boston Harbor Hotel, said the changes will result in customer traffic being better distributed among restaurants. In the past, he said, high-end restaurants such as Meritage were flooded with people eager to get the best value for their money, while restaurants like the Sea Grille didn’t do as well. For the two weeks in March, Bruce said, he plans to feature the $38 dinner menu at Meritage and a $28 meal at the Sea Grille.
Leviton said he is tempted by the revamped pricing, but he is not ready to sign up just yet. “I will be watching to see how other restaurants react to it and what paths they take,” he said.
Even Moscaritolo is not sure whether diners will give Dine Out Boston rave reviews.
“In the end,” he said, “the consumers will vote with their dollars.”