Currently Boston is having Restaurant Week (which lasts, confusingly, for two weeks, till the 28th). For those of you who haven’t been exposed to the phenomena, it means cheap meals at fancy restaurants. Somewhere like No. 9 Park in Boston, where the three course prix fixe usually costs $65, will have a three course menu for $33.10 (don’t ask me what the $0.10 is about). It’s seen as a good way for people that typically can’t afford to eat at a place like No. 9 Park (e.g. poor students like me) to try it out, and a lot of foodie-ish people (a tribe to which I proudly declare allegiance) tend to become excited when Restaurant Week comes around. Unfortunately, I actually tend not to like Restaurant Week much; I think the food (and experience) you get is of much lower quality than usual, and the value you get for your dollar is often actually less.
The reason for this is apparent if you see RW from the restaurant’s perspective: since you’re charging less you need to make two big changes to avoid losing money– increase your volume of customers (so service during RW tends to be rushed) and decrease the price of ingredients (which I’m fine with, but which changes the type of dishes that you can make from what you’re used to. Most restaurants just take the expensive ingredients out of their classics, but there’s a reason those ingredients were in their in the first place). You’re also serving customers that don’t normally come to your restaurant (and oftentimes tend not to come to nice restaurants really at all). This means that most RW patrons won’t ever return to your establishment, so your incentive to put out a great product goes down (your regular customers have probably fled, because, after all, they can afford your usual high prices and getting a reservation during RW is usually a pain in the ass). Moreover, it’s elitist but true to say that there’s a portion of RW customers (definitely not all, but a substantial amount) that aren’t super-discerning and won’t know the difference between mediocre and excellent food as long as it’s served with the halo of your establishment’s prestige.
Add this to the fact that most restaurants that are actually busy during the week don’t participate in Restaurant Week (since they don’t need to), and what you get is a much lower quality experience then usual (and, I’d argue less value for your money). It’s already difficult to serve great food and make a profit; even the best chefs and owners usually take a few months after opening to iron out the kinks and serve a great product. But then, at Restaurant Week, you’re asking them do something substantially more difficult — create a similar quality experience at a much lower cost. Moreover, their incentive to achieve this isn’t nearly as strong as when they’re serving typical customers who will actually come back to the restaurant in the future. I think the final thing that makes RW meals particularly likely to disappoint though, is that the task the restaurant needs to perform is just different than the one they do each and every night. Asking a restaurant to cut their prices in half without losing a huge amount of money is like asking a great point guard to play center for a couple of weeks; great athletes might be able to do it, but it’s already difficult enough to be great at something you’re actually specialized in, nevermind something you have to throw together for just a few weeks out of the year.