On a Sunday evening in early November, it's deserted at Vlora. The Mediterranean restaurant has been getting a lot of buzz, and consequently a lot of business. But tonight, two small groups of friends and one couple are the only people here to appreciate the loud music, the constellation of tiny, twinkling lights set into the ceiling, and the comfortable seats, which still have their new leather smell. Outside, a waiter leans against the wall, smoking cigarettes and killing time. The food's as good as ever, but there's no one around to eat it. It's a little depressing.
The following week an e-mail from the restaurant's publicist arrives. It announces that Vlora is introducing Sunday suppers.
These special menus - often prix fixe with limited choices, and often more affordable than the offerings on other evenings - make business sense, serving as a lure for diners on a traditionally slow night. That's part of the reason restaurants keep instituting them. Vlora's Sunday suppers began in early December; the three-course menu costs $35. Rocca started offering Sunday suppers around the same time, with "2 courses and a sweet" for $22 per person. KO Prime hosts the first of its "Retro Sundays" this coming week, sending its newfangled-steakhouse sensibility back to old-school with dishes such as veal Oscar and lobster Thermidor. "It's the same things people are familiar with, but with a twist," chef de cuisine Jamie Bissonnette says. (We'll see how long all-you-can-eat prime rib lasts at $24.95 - get it while it's hot.)
But Sunday suppers are more than just a good value for diners or a good business move (and have the potential to be a bad one if a restaurant can't do enough volume at a lower price per head). A Sunday night, done well, can change the tenor of a restaurant - bringing staff and customers together, encouraging new people to come in and veterans to try new things, and serving as a playground for chefs.
In fact, business wasn't what motivated Vlora to start serving Sunday suppers, says owner Aldo Velaj, who is originally from Albania. "Back home on Sundays, we all sit together with our families or invite friends over and have a big dinner, drink wine, and tell stories. We're trying to capture that feeling."
LA chef Suzanne Goin is perhaps the queen of Sunday suppers, which she's been hosting for nine years. Her restaurant Lucques has developed a huge following for them, and her cookbook, "Sunday Suppers at Lucques," is composed of recipes from the $40, three-course menu. Lucques offers a textbook example of what the night can mean for a restaurant.
"In the beginning, it was the hardest thing in the world to sell," Goin says. "People focused on how limited the menu is. It used to be, 'What if I don't like duck?' Now I think people are more open and trusting of chefs; the American dining population is becoming way more sophisticated. It's our busiest night. We get more people than on Saturdays."
An astounding number of those people are regulars - 50 percent, Goin says. "People come every week or every other week. It feels like being part of a community."
Developing Sunday regulars is part of what Bissonnette is aiming for at KO Prime - "people who are going to come in and say they don't usually want to go to a Pigalle or a KO Prime on Sunday. If I were to go [out on a Sunday], I'd think of something like Eastern Standard - something not too high end, something fun and delicious with big portions, something not too expensive." Something, in other words, like KO Prime's Retro Sundays.
As Sunday suppers build a sense of community among regulars, they make a restaurant more accessible for newcomers (and for industry people, many of whom have Sundays off). At Rendezvous in Central Square, chef-owner Steve Johnson offers a three-course prix fixe for $38, but customers also have the option of ordering a la carte.
"About 50 percent of the dishes come from the regular weekly menu, and the other half are dishes that are conceived of and executed specifically for that day," Johnson says. "It's a good mix. It reassures people who haven't come before, if a Sunday is their opportunity and they were hoping to get the regular thing. Yet on the other side of the coin, it offers new and different things. People feel like it's a little bit special."
On a recent Sunday, Rendezvous is filled at 7:30. A waitress is having a long and thoughtful discussion with two customers about what wine they should try. At a four-top, everyone is eating different appetizers: a beet salad; a salad with apples, cheddar, and spiced pecans; a rich ragout of foraged mushrooms with creamy truffled polenta; and shrimp cooked in their shells, their heads still on for juicy biting, served with pickled green tomatoes. For entrees, though, several people opt for the same thing: meatballs with chewy toasted orecchiette, mushrooms, and kale.
"Around mid-September, we started making pork and veal meatballs," Johnson says. "We did it as a Sunday menu item; I viewed the meatballs as the kind of thing that was Sunday appropriate. It went crazy. It became so popular that when the Tuscan kale and the oyster mushrooms were available from farmer friends and foragers, it was a natural to put it on the regular menu."
Sundays offer chefs a chance to try new things out. Whether these dishes land on the regular menu or not, they give staff and diners a departure from the routine.
At Craigie Street Bistrot's "Chef's Whim" nights, you might wind up eating something different than the person at the next table. (Offered at 9 p.m., the Sunday event has become so popular, it now takes place on Wednesdays as well.) The dinners are a high-end version of consuming leftovers.
"On a Sunday, I might have six beautiful U8 scallops or 12 Hawaiian shrimp," Maws says (U8 means there are eight of these large scallops per pound). "Some people got truffles in their rabbit crepinette [recently]. I had a couple left - I'm going to get them out of here and have people enjoy them. You have to be willing to put yourself in my hands. People often say, 'I never would have ordered that. I'm so glad I got to try it.' They come back and ask, 'Do you have more pigs' ears?' "
At restaurants Rialto and Rocca, Sunday suppers also give chefs a chance to be mentors. At Rialto, "CJ's Sundays" belong to chef de cuisine Carolyn Johnson. "Carolyn really puts her mark on everything that happens at Rialto," says chef Jody Adams, "and I think it's important to allow people doing that to have ownership and also for the world to know." Adams was given a similar opportunity as a sous chef at Hamersley's Bistro in the '80s, when chef-owner Gordon Hamersley handed the Sunday menu over to her.
Rocca co-owner Michela Larson says, "Our sous chefs are on on Sunday night, and it gives them a real opportunity to display their talents. It gives them ownership for that particular menu. That's really kind of wonderful. It's theirs."
And, of course, it's the diners' too. "We wanted to offer something that was really easy and accessible at a price point that made it a no-brainer for people," Larson says of Rocca's Sunday suppers. "It's very comfortable food. It's not less, it's just different."
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.