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Why Marc Vetri and I Despise Restaurant Week

January 26, 2012

It’s the waning days of January, which means winter doldrums (notwithstanding this year’s weak snowfall) and Center City Restaurant Week, which started this week and extends through next week. Predictably, I’ve been hearing a lot of buzzing about it. (Except for a friend who complained that its participant list has fewer high-end restaurants. I’m not sure that’s empirically true, but there are plenty of superlative-worthy big names anyway, from José Garces’s Amada to Georges Perrier’s Le Bec Fin to Michael Solomonov’s Zahav). Well, I’m not buzzing. In fact, the last thing I generally want to do during any restaurant week is eat out.

I would tell you why, except that the inimitable Marc Vetri—Mario Batali’s favorite Italian chef and a budding restaurant empire builder—has made my point as well as it can be made, in a rant on his Facebook pageAs he explains, restaurant week is a perfect formula for sending everyone home unhappy. It’s worth reading his entire rant, but the gist is: Price ceilings and packed dining rooms force chefs at top restaurants to compromise on food and service, generally leaving customers with a dismal experience. And who wants hastily prepared food, from a rigidly narrow menu, in cramped quarters served by overextended waitstaff who can’t expect good tips under the circumstances no matter the extent of their effort? And customers usually don’t save much, if any. All of these observations are mostly borne out by comparisons I’ve done over the years of restaurants in and out of restaurant week. Generally, the only winners are restaurant owners, who apparently tend to get a bump in revenue from the shabby carnival, notwithstanding the myth that it’s a deal for the diner. And one has to wonder whether it’s really good even for restaurant owners if they alienate potential repeat customers.

Of course, if you want to eat at a top Philly restaurant, including Vetri’s spots, it will cost you. But it’s worth it. If you’re willing to shell out for a restaurant week prix fixe, consider saving a little more and experiencing the full menu in a more sane context. Or go for lunch instead (something I’ve done to ease the wallet dent at pricier spots such as Stephen Starr flagship Buddakan and Vetri’s own Osteria). That way, you can be more confident the meal will be memorable—in a good way, that is.

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