Dine Out Boston, formerly known as Restaurant Week, returns Sunday for its annual August run. The twice-yearly event, which offers diners discounted menus as an incentive to try restaurants all over town, is now in its 20th year. This time around, as its planners and participants figure out how to navigate coronavirus, things look a little different.
"New adaptations such as takeout and delivery options are key, along with trying to get restaurants to be creative with how they reimagine their outdoor spaces," says David O'Donnell, director of strategic communications for the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, the organization behind the event. "We wanted to make sure restaurants, if they are too confined or not comfortable opening and are just doing takeout, could [still] be part of Dine Out Boston."
This is a signature event for the tourism bureau, which kept a close eye on the state’s phased reopening during planning, O’Donnell says: “Public health and safety are paramount for us.” Typically, about 170 restaurants participate in the summertime Dine Out Boston, which this year runs Aug. 16-21 and 23-28. (There’s one in March, as well, both scheduled to give restaurants a boost during slower times of year.) This time, they were hoping for 100 participants. “We did get 111, which is pretty impressive,” O’Donnell says. Lunch menus cost $15, $20, or $25, while dinner menus are $28, $33, or $38. Participating restaurants range from city staples such as dbar, Estragon, Grill 23, MIDA, and Sonsie to suburban spots like 80 Thoreau in Concord and A Tavola in Winchester.
Q Restaurant in Chinatown, which serves hot pot, sushi, and Chinese cuisine, is on the roster. The restaurant has taken part in the event for seven or eight years now, says general manager Billy Gu. “I was surprised we were even doing Dine Out Boston, because usually the idea is to create a menu that allows people that would never come in to try it,” he says. “The mentality behind it is to get as many people in as possible.” Drawing a crowd is not a goal or an option this year, with restaurants limiting the number of guests to accommodate social distancing; Q, for instance, is currently operating at 30 to 40 percent capacity.
So the restaurant is taking a slightly different approach. “We are creating a menu that’s more of an experience, so you get the most out of the restaurant,” Gu says. “We’ve created a couple of brand-new dishes that are like a sampler. We’re giving out more variety for trying — particularly hot pot, because that’s what we specialize in.” After an assortment of starters like Xi’an cold rice noodles, avocado salad, and popcorn chicken, dinner guests can choose meat, seafood, or vegetarian hot pot samplers, or a sushi and sashimi platter, followed by dessert. To keep numbers down in the restaurant without making the experience feel cold or lonely, Q has placed stuffed animals in the empty seats.
For each round of Dine Out Boston, the tourism bureau chooses charitable beneficiaries: this August, the Museum of African American History and Revolutionary Spaces, which operates Old South Meeting House and the Old State House. “Those two organizations jumped out at us and really resonated,” O’Donnell says. Both will use funding to boost their virtual programming. On the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre, Revolutionary Spaces features an exhibit on Crispus Attucks, the man of African and Native American descent who was the first casualty.
The Black Lives Matter movement was a factor in how the tourism bureau looked at charitable giving partners, O’Donnell says. But diversifying the list of Dine Out Boston restaurants may be a longer-term goal. In order to participate, a restaurant must be a member of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau; this is a major benefit of signing on, and membership cost is determined primarily by the restaurant’s number of seats. Although things could change in the future, the tourism board is currently focusing on ways to bring attention, and spending, to Boston’s diverse neighborhoods that don’t necessarily require membership — for instance, creating community-driven videos and digital guides for each neighborhood in the city.
“We’ve always been so member-focused, and that’s always going be a key pillar,” O’Donnell says. “Telling a broader, more authentic story about Boston and what it offers is the twin pillar. If we’re not doing one as well as the other, we’re not doing our jobs.”
For more information about Dine Out Boston, go to www.dineoutboston.com.