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Dine Out Boston returns, but participation down

Restaurant Week is now Dine Out Boston.

Lane Turner/Globe staff/file 2003

Restaurant Week is now Dine Out Boston.

Let the reservations begin.

Chefs at 173 local restaurants are cooking up fixed-price menus for the second serving of Dine Out Boston. The twice-yearly event, formerly known as Restaurant Week, begins Sunday.

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The Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau threw out the old title and restructured the rules of the promotion earlier this year in response to a decline in restaurant participation and mounting complaints.

Upscale establishments said Restaurant Week’s one-price-fits-all approach made it difficult to offer signature dishes without losing money, while casual restaurants said the mandated $38 tab was too high.

Dine Out was first introduced in March and returns from Aug. 17 to 22 and Aug. 24 to 29. The new concept eliminates a three-course requirement for restaurants and gives them the choice of serving dinner for $28, $33, or $38, and lunch for $15, $20, or $25.

More than half of the establishments will offer a $38 dinner and $20 lunch next week.

“One of the goals was to take the shackles off the chefs and owners,” said Pat Moscaritolo, president of the visitors bureau. “This cookie-cutter approach doesn’t really work today.”

At least in its inaugural year, Dine Out Boston has yet to reverse the slide in participating establishments.

A total of 186 establishments signed up for the March promotion, which is down from 222 in the same two-week period last year. Expected participation in the August event also represents a drop from a year ago. The promotion’s predecessor, Restaurant Week, experienced similar declines in its final few years. The visitors bureau does not track diner participation or sales.

Moscaritolo attributes the fade, at least in part, to the economic recovery. Many restaurants struggled to attract patrons during the recession and had to offer promotions just to get people in the door. Now that business has picked up, some are more reluctant, he said.

Todd Winer, the chef and owner of Pastoral in Fort Point, said he would still opt out of the event even if his popular new restaurant was empty.

In the early days of Restaurant Week, a small pool of high-end establishments offered the promotion, which gave it exclusivity and offered a great value for diners, he said.

“It was the upper echelon of the Boston dining scene,” Winer said. “Now it’s flooded with every restaurant from Wendy’s to Menton.”

The regular menu at Pastoral offers meals at a variety of price points and diners can spend anywhere from $24 to $64 or more for a great dinner, he said. Winer said he doesn’t want to limit the options for his guests.

“I’d like them to have the full experience and eat what they’d like without me dictating what they can eat,” he said.

But other establishments, such as the South End steakhouse Boston Chops , say the event boosts business over those two weeks and beyond.

The restaurant’s $38 Dine Out menu offers customers the option of an 8-ounce hanger, skirt, or New York strip steak and unlimited French fries. In addition to the steak, available on the regular menu between $25 and $27, diners have their choice of three appetizers and two desserts. All together, the three-course meal regularly costs about $50.

Boston Chops typically seats about 120 tables a night Monday through Wednesday. That often doubled during Dine Out in March and many patrons became regulars, said Mitch Hayes, the restaurant’s director of operations.

“Being able to pick the $38 price point is perfect for us,” Hayes said. “It’s a great deal for guests and let’s us serve great food without sacrificing the restaurant. Even if we didn’t ever get any of these people back in, it’s still worth it to fill the extra seats.”

Moscaritolo said it’s too soon to determine whether the changes are making a difference. The bureau won’t make any additional tweaks to the program until a full year of data becomes available.

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna.
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