For New York's cash-strapped foodies, it's the most wonderful time of the year.
NYC Restaurant Week, the biannual promotion that features reduced prices at hundreds of the city's top restaurants, is in full swing. This winter edition of Restaurant Week is actually three weeks and runs now through March 7, with 291 participating restaurants offering a discounted lunch and dinner prix fixe.
The culinary tradition dates back to 1992, a time before OpenTable and #foodporn, when it debuted during the Democratic National Convention as a one-off culinary event to draw in convention delegates and attendees. Spearheaded by Tim Zagat and Joe Baum, the week-long event featured 95 eateries serving a lunch prix fixe for $19.92. It was so successful, the restaurateurs brought it back the following year, with lunch this time costing $19.93.
Twenty-two years later, Restaurant Week is still going strong. And like any young adult, it's had some noticeable growth spurts. For one, the price has continued to go up, with lunch now costing $25. Also, it is several weeks long and runs not once but twice a year, during the summer and winter.
Most noticeably, the number of participating restaurants has tripled, with many now serving both lunch and dinner. Along with Restaurant Week originals, such as Tribeca Grill, Delmonico's Restaurant, Le Cirque and Barbetta, there are 42 new dining choices this year, including Harlem hotspots The Cecil and Lido and the Brooklyn Museum's new restaurant, Saul.
Though restaurants come and go, the mission of Restaurant Week has remained the same since the start.
"When Restaurant Week was created, it really was to take the mystery out of what the price will be," said Kelly Curtin, executive vice president of membership and destination services at NYC & Company, the city's marketing organization that now oversees NYC Restaurant Week. "It takes barriers away, so anybody can experience a beautiful meal at an important restaurant in the city."
For chefs, this can mean the chance to reach a whole new audience.
"We want to expose our cuisine and service to new guests who may have not tried my restaurant or who don't frequent the neighborhood regularly," said Chef David Burke, who has two restaurants participating in NYC Restaurant Week right now.
With multiple weeks of dining deals available, diners can try new restaurants to their stomachs' and wallets' content. Kim Pham, a senior at New York University, is currently vying to break her personal Restaurant Week record of eight this winter.
"Being a college student means a lot of time eating dollar pizza from St. Mark's," said Pham, 21. "But that doesn't mean I want to sacrifice on quality."
Beyond diners, restaurants benefit from the promotion, too. Last winter, participating restaurants made $6 million during what is typically a slow time of year for the industry, according to NYC & Company. Since NYC Restaurant Week Winter 2011, the company estimates that the program has generated $41.6 million in total revenue based on OpenTable data.
"It's one of our vibrancy programs," said Curtin. "We're able to create this program to fill up the restaurants. We get people out dining."
The numbers are difficult to track, but people are coming out. Last winter, some 210,000 diners made online reservations -- that's not counting walk-ins or reservations made directly with restaurants. When online reservations opened on Feb. 10 for this winter's installment, the traffic strained the NYC & Company servers.
"Reservations are usually off the hook ... especially right at the beginning," said Curtin. "There's a lot of demand."
Still, this is New York, and Restaurant Week isn't without its detractors. One common complaint is that some restaurants serve off-menu items that are of a lesser quality than regular menu items. Pham avoids this by carefully vetting her Restaurant Week picks.
"I make sure all items featured on the Restaurant Week menu are on the regular menu," said Pham, whose reservations this winter include David Burke Kitchen, Morimoto, ilili Restaurant and TAO Uptown. "I want to make sure I'm getting the most accurate representation of the restaurant."
The lack of outer-borough options is also obvious, with only four out of this year's 291 participating restaurants not in Manhattan. Though the price point -- a three-course meal that's a deal at $25 for lunch and $38 for dinner -- factors heavily into this.
"It's apples and oranges," said Robert MacKay, director of public relations for the Queens Economic Development Corporation. "It's not economically feasible for a lot of our restaurants."
To that end, the corporation has been running its own version of restaurant week in Queens since 2004. NYC Restaurant Week has inspired similar spinoffs in Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx. It's even helped launch theater promotions in the city, such as Off-Broadway Week, a 2-for-1 ticket offer that is running now through March 2. Outside of New York, you'll find restaurant weeks in cities across the country, with Denver, Baltimore, Cleveland and Louisville, Ky., recently hosting their own.
"Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery," said Curtin, adding, "We're the oldest and the largest with the most diverse number of cuisines. It reflects the diversity of New York City."
IF YOU GO
Restaurant Week runs now until March 7. Three-course prix fixe for lunch is $25, dinner $38, excluding beverages, gratuities and taxes. To see the full list of participating restaurants and to make reservations, go to nycgo.com/restaurantweek.