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Restaurant Week, the D.C. hospitality industry’s annual summer exercise in self-preservation, is an “activity that bonds people together,” says Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. To a number of eaters and establishments inside the restaurant community, however, their bond with RW is about as tight as Mario Batali’s ass.
Designed in part to drum up business for more than 150 eateries during a period when legislators (and the lobbyists and lawyers who love them) retreat to friendlier climes, RW is the foodie community’s favorite indulgence and favorite whipping boy all in one. Though many stack up reservations for those establishments they can’t normally afford, almost as many light up restaurant phone lines and blogs afterward with the standard complaints: limited menus and long waits, surly waiters with little motivation to grovel, surcharges for pricey dishes, wine excluded from the prix fixe meal (RW participants charge $20.06 for lunch, $30.06 for dinner).
“By the end of the week, you’re exhausted and a little beaten down because there are people that come in with expectations,” says Alysa Lebeau Reich, director of PR and marketing for Galileo, a RW participant. “People come in and they love it, and people come in and they’re disappointed. It’s kind of a tough week for restaurants.”
It’s no wonder, then, that some diners and establishments just avoid the whole thing. “I don’t think Restaurant Week [is] worth the effort,” writes one foodie on DonRockwell.com. “[I] usually use it as an opportunity to practice my home kitchen skills.” A few fine-dining restaurants—particularly those that don’t need the extra business—take a similar circle-the-wagons approach to RW. A quick scan of the list of participating restaurants (available at washington.org/restaurantwk/) reveals several notable omissions, including such heavy-hitters as Michel Richard Citronelle, 1789, CityZen, Palena, Old Ebbitt Grill, and BlackSalt.
“It doesn’t seem to make sense to bring in more customers when you’re already at capacity,” says Jeff Black, owner of the sea-worthy Palisades fish market BlackSalt. “You like to be busy, but to a point where you’re in control.”
Control means not only controlling customer volume—and therefore the consistency of the food coming out of your kitchen—but also controlling your image and reputation, which can be worth a lot more than the extra covers generated during RW. “Our dinner is a prix fixe at $95,” says Mel Davis, public-relations coordinator for Citronelle, which has never participated in RW. “It wouldn’t be what we do at all if it was a $35 menu or even a $30 menu. I think when people come here, they want the full experience.”
One former Restaurant Week participant, 1789, has decided to skip this year’s installment for the first time since the promotion began in the fall of 2001. Maureen Hirsch, director of marketing for Clyde’s Restaurant Group (which includes 1789), says the Georgetown institution has revived its own annual promotion: a $35 prix fixe menu that’s available from June to mid-September. According to Hirsch, people don’t perceive much value during RW if they’re only saving $5 over 1789’s regular summer deal. “It’s not like you’re going to Galileo, where you might spend $75 a head, and then you’re only going to spend $30 a head [during RW],” she says. “They feel like they’re getting a better bargain at the places that are full-price.”
Even casual industry observers might assume that the absence of these culinary big guns would stress the Restaurant Association—which, on Aug. 7, placed an advertisement in the New York Times, hoping that some of Gotham’s gourmands might give the D.C. restaurant scene the seal of approval it craves. So does it hurt not to have, say, a Citronelle participate in Restaurant Week? “Uh-uh,” says Breaux, “not as far as we’re concerned.” —Tim Carman