It sounds like a “Hell’s Kitchen” reality show challenge: Prepare a three-course gourmet dinner for $33.12 while coping with rising food prices.
With Restaurant Week Boston now underway, thousands of diners are swarming the city and nearby communities looking for such a deal from local chefs. About 200 restaurants are participating in the promotional event, which is aimed at attracting new customers during a slow period by offering $33.12 prix fixe dinners and lunches that range from $15.12 to $20.12.
“It’s a matter of being creative,” Jason Santos, owner of Blue Inc. on Broad Street in Boston, said of the balance between quality and economics. “I would lose money if I did rib eye. Obviously, you can’t compromise quality.”
Food costs have gone up substantially over the last few years and widespread drought conditions this summer are expected to push the price of beef and corn even higher. As a result, some regular Restaurant Week participants, such as Lumiere in Newton, dropped out of the event this year, and star-studded spots like Craigie on Main have never bought in. But chefs and owners at other restaurants, including Blue Inc. and posh steakhouse Grill 23, say the event is still worth it.
To keep costs down during the two-week promotion (it runs through Friday this week and Aug. 26-31), Santos uses less-pricey chicken thighs instead of breasts for his buttermilk-fried chicken. He chooses hanger steak over sirloin and shops at local farmers markets for produce that doesn’t come with a fuel surcharge because of long-distance deliveries.
But the blue-haired chef — who in 2010 made it to the finals of Gordon Ramsey’s “Hell’s Kitchen” on the Fox network — said that when he planned his Restaurant Week offerings, he didn’t count pennies. “I want to make sure the menu is killer. If I have to take a little bit of a hit, I’m fine with that,” Santos said.
Now in its 12th year, Restaurant Week is expected to bring more than 355,000 people to participating restaurants, according to the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the event’s organizers. Held in the winter and summer, it has become one of the biggest food fetes in the region.
Since 2007, meal prices during Restaurant Week have gone up just a penny a year, said Pamela Frechette, leisure-marketing manager for the convention and visitors bureau.
“I haven’t heard a lot of complaints of the cost of food,” said Frechette, noting that more high-end restaurants than ever are taking part this summer. “All the steakhouses are in it this year — Morton’s, The Capital Grille, Grill 23.”
Grill 23, where a Kobe steak can set you back $59, entered its first Restaurant Week in March.
“It’s gotten so big and attracts so many people, it’s probably not too smart for us to not be involved,” said Paul Dias, vice president of operations for Himmel Hospitality Group, which operates the Back Bay venue.
The restaurant — which is normally out of reach for the average diner — hopes to attract a broader crowd by offering gazpacho with avocado ice cream, Denver steak, and a hot butterscotch sundae for $33.
Dias estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 first-timers came through the restaurant’s mahogany doors in March. He expects the same kind of turnout this month. “That’s worth our investment. Do we break even? Or even a little better than that? With marketing, it’s difficult to monetize the success,” said Dias.
For some restaurants, however, a flood of new diners over a two-week period can be too much. Veteran South End restaurateur Gordon Hamersley said he tried Restaurant Week at his Hamersley’s Bistro years ago, but decided to opt out.
“It creates havoc in the dining room. It ruins the service, the waiters get unhappy, and I get unhappy,” he said.
As an alternative, the French bistro is offering a prix fixe summer menu for $40 during the last two weeks of August, a price more in line with today’s food costs, Hamersley said.
“If I was a new restaurant starting out, I might do it, but it’s more important to maintain our good reputation for food and service,” he said. “We are not in the business of giving away food.”
Arriving at the slowest time of year, when most restaurants are not fully staffed, Restaurant Week also means increased labor costs. Overtime for waiters, bartenders, and the kitchen crew all come into play at Grill 23.
“We end up with a higher payroll, but if we focus on the margins, we would be completely compromising the whole idea,” said Dias.
During last summer’s Restaurant Week, at Blue Inc. attracted 40 percent more customers compared with a regular week, according to Santos. Early reservations this year indicate the restaurant may top that number.
“I feel pretty good about this,” said Santos.
In addition to advertising on websites, television, and trolleys, Restaurant Week produces countless tweets, Facebook updates, and mouth-watering images on the online bulletin board Pinterest.
It’s being part of that buzz that has kept Turner Fisheries in the promotion for five years.
“We are not doing it to make money per se. We are doing it to be part of something that’s become so big,” said Perry Kessler, director of sales and marketing for the Westin Copley Place Hotel, which owns the seafood restaurant.
“It generates good spirit throughout the city and gives everyone something to talk about. Plus, it shows we are team players.”