As a college student in New York, it’s easy to feel like you’re surrounded by thousands of beautiful forks when all you can use is a spoon.
Those forks are the 24,000 registered restaurants in NYC. We know they exist, but we’re not even going to think about trying them; they are simply not for us. Their prices, their dress codes, their air of sophistication—it’s all too much. Yet, for the past couple of weeks, we’ve felt much less left out. Thank you, Restaurant Week.
Of course, “week” is a misnomer. This year, Restaurant Week lasted from Jan. 14 to Feb. 8, and there will be a two-week counterpart to the event in July. But we’re not mad. Where prices would have ordinarily exceeded our professors’ salaries, we only need drop $38 on a three-course meal at one of the city’s high-tier establishments. Combining the cavatappi pasta with spicy lamb sausage of Chelsea’s The Red Cat with Butter Restaurant’s grilled brook trout and the cookie-dough egg roll from Brooklyn-based Benchmark Restaurant, Restaurant Week opens the kitchen doors of fine dining to all types of New Yorkers, even us.
Nonetheless, only 317 restaurants participate in New York Restaurant Week. Do the math and you’ll realize that’s a little over 1 percent of the city’s restaurants. For all the hype it gets, participation is surprisingly low. Could it be that participating is a risky move for restaurants?
The return rate of customers, after all, will not be high. In addition, there is an extraordinary cost of production once the restaurant reaches a high demand. Ingredients, additional staff, and longer hours roll into a larger bill for the restaurant. The customers may not even appreciate the craftsmanship of a red onion-sugarplum sauce drizzled over a grilled chicken breast. They might ask for ketchup. Worse, they might be from California and ask for a substitute.
However, Restaurant Week creator Tim Zagat argues that restaurants reap huge rewards from the twice-annual event. “Restaurant weeks have become a tradition in city after city because they appeal to both customers and restaurants. In short, they are a win-win,” Zagat wrote in a 2010 article published in the Atlantic Monthly.
Upon reflection, the effects do seem highly symbiotic; customers chance upon a restaurant that otherwise wouldn’t get past their $-$$ Yelp filter. Sure, they might pay less than what the restaurant asks for their regular menu items, but business won’t stall. The restaurant is drawing in hundreds or thousands more diners than it usually would; publicity skyrockets.
Plus, Zagat argued, many just need the push to go out to eat, and will often decide to forgo the prix fixe menu once they arrive. Restaurant Week “patrons very often go à la carte, add an extra dessert, or celebrate by buying wine,” he wrote. In this way, diners end up paying far more than the fixed price, “especially since drinks, coffee, and tip are all extra.”
So maybe Restaurant Week isn’t that great of a deal for the customer. Still, there’s something special about it. We students feel able to go out, dress up, and find a fancy place. Participants in the yearly event, such as the aforementioned The Red Cat, Butter, and Benchmark, know their new clientele. It is comprised of college students, residents of the greater New York area, and tourists giggling with glee over the fact that New York really does have that smell. Consequently, the atmosphere of each and every restaurant changes for a month. Instead of a couple’s quiet consumption of crème brûlée at the end of the night, there may be a flash as the college sophomore uploads photos of her entrée onto Instagram.
Potential everyman diners reference the database of participating businesses for a chance to secure a table at triple-dollar-sign restaurants: they are “the masses,” the remaining consumers who fall into categories outside the elite. New York’s ability to temporarily allow everyone access to elite establishments extends beyond Restaurant Week. Think of the Tribeca Film Festival, New York Fashion Week, and Fashion’s Night Out.
NYRW has also inspired Restaurant Week spinoffs across the globe: Boston Restaurant Week, Shanghai Restaurant Week, and Grand Rapids Restaurant Week have similar logistics and pricing, and the same PR benefit envisioned by Zagat in 1992. If the success of one trial-run in New York 20 years ago catalyzed the production of entire restaurant months across the globe, the drawbacks for restaurants must ultimately be negligible.
Like New York itself, Restaurant Week embodies the idea that anything can happen. You can be an ordinarily starving college student pleading outside of Westside Market, but then enjoy one night in a bougie, downtown lounge. You can be too cheap to buy the clothes modeled at Fashion’s Night Out, yet cross paths with Karlie Kloss off Prince Street. You can finish your Plato’s Republic, descend onto a subway platform, and disappear anywhere. Restaurant Week fits right in; it remains one of the crazy, kooky, completely necessary experiences of being in New York City.