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The Promise & Potential of Prix Fixe

September 21, 2011

Mr. Dave is very in tune with the everyman. Well, that is if by everyman, you mean Josh K. on Yelp. Both gentlemen commented that the food at Albany Restaurant Week was more akin to wedding food than fine dining.

But a limited menu with a fixed price should produce results that are actually just the opposite of these two commenters’ experience.

If you will indulge me with a few minutes of your time, I’ll explain.

One of the big questions I had upon arriving in Albany was, “Why is restaurant food so expensive here, when few restaurants are using ingredients or preparations that justify the price?”

Obviously there are a lot of factors that go into pricing decisions. But I’ve found one of the major factors is the nature of local menus. Most of them are very long, and most of them are effectively written in stone. A small handful of restaurants here change out there menus quarterly. But that’s a far cry from the single-page weekly or daily menus that were the norm out west.

A large menu means that a kitchen needs to keep on hand all the ingredients that go into every dish. And with that comes waste. Waste costs money. The math is simple: increased restaurant costs ultimately add to the price of food.

An annual menu means that even as the price of a certain ingredient rises when it’s out of season, the kitchen must still purchase it, sometimes in significant quantity. This tacks on additional costs to the operation, and that too impacts the price of food for the customer.

Now, say a restaurant is going to abandon its multi-page menu for a full week, offering only three appetizers, three entrees and three desserts. First, they should have significantly less waste with the pared down menu. Second, they should also be able to take advantage of less expensive—but still high quality—seasonal ingredients.

A brigade that used to bang out sixty different preps now only has to focus on nine.

With fewer items on the menu, the cooks should be able to become masters of the dishes they are putting out that week. Seriously, even after a few days, execution should approach perfection every single time.

This is how Restaurant Week is supposed to work.

But I do not doubt the experiences of either Mr. Dave or Josh K., as I can also certainly see the dark side of Restaurant Week. It could be a time when restaurants are goaded into participating in an event for which they have little interest. After all, are the people who come out for a $20 three-course meal going to return when the factory-farmed pork chop alone costs more than that?

And these are the places that just don’t care.

Looking at the menus I got the feeling that Jack’s Oyster House fell squarely within that group, which is a shame. But I would hope that places like taste and Kelsey’s are hungrier for new business than the oldest restaurant in Albany, which would probably continue to thrive if it started serving microwave TV dinners to New York state lobbyists.

But these restaurants are wrong. People will return; maybe not all the people, but some of them. However, people will only be coming back if they are wowed. And as I’ve outlined above, a limited, seasonal prix fixe menu should set every restaurant up for successes in this regard. Events like Restaurant Week can help cement a restaurant’s reputation as a great kitchen, or cause people to shrug and suggest that they don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Regardless, I think we can all agree that Albany’s Restaurant Week is broken. But it’s not the fault of Restaurant Week as a concept. Once again, many of our better restaurants fail in execution.

That doesn’t mean that I won’t keep on trying. Maybe I’ll be able to make it to taste. I’ve never been. If it’s great, I’ll surely return. But if they can’t manage to perform well on Restaurant Week, when the deck is stacked in their favor, forget about it.

On a separate note, I have to say that not all wedding food is bad. Capriccio had the right idea of roasting pigs in its oven for their porchetta. It’s something that can be made in a large quantity, holds well, and serves many guests. In that regard, barbecue makes for some of the best wedding food ever. Sadly, many brides kill that idea right out of the gate with some ridiculous argument about sauce and dry cleaning.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2011 9:32 am

    I commend the lot of you for writing that wedding food is often unimpressive. I recently expressed the same sentiment on a TU blog and got hounded by people who say they love wedding food. As you later said, it is possible to get good banquet food, but the vast majority is pretty standard and uninteresting.

    That said, I think a big part of these “restaurant week” events is focused around bringing recognition to a place that someone is unfamiliar with. With that, some Joe Schmoe who walks into a higher priced place like, let’s say, Jacks during restaurant week and gets to experience a place that would normally be outside of their budget. There are a cause and an effect to this. On the consumer’s end, they are getting a bargain meal at a fine restaurant, and, most people would never even think to go back to dine at normal prices. The business, seeing that this provides no net benefit slaps together a menu of something mediocre to bad, knowing that they will likely never see this consumer again. With that line of logic, the finer establishments have no real incentive to participate; I honestly don’t blame them for either not doing it or going through the motions.

    I think the businesses that would benefit the most would be places that are priced within + or – 50% of the prixe fixe price. In this case, people get exposed to something that’s just outside of their budget and may possibly return if they are wowed. Those places, to me, should be the ones putting the most into the event.

    • September 21, 2011 6:14 pm

      Here, here! (Or is it Hear, hear? I am not sure.)

      I’ve been to a couple of weddings where the food is really good, though definitely not worth the price per head that I know it must have cost. Though, ironically, the weddings with better food had a lower price per head. Or, maybe that is not all that surprising.

  2. September 21, 2011 9:58 am

    I’m all for wedding barbecue. A year ago, I smoked two briskets for my daughter’s wedding in California. They were served at a hoedown the night before the wedding itself. The burnt ends were stored in the reefer at the meeting center and the staff of the fancy catering outfit that did the main meal was snitching them throughout the weekend.

  3. September 21, 2011 10:28 am

    Restaurant Week in Albany is like chow time in prison.

  4. Kerosena permalink
    September 21, 2011 11:04 am

    In my experience, Albany restaurants offer their RW specials in addition to their regular ‘long form’ menu during Restaurant Week. It sounds like you propose ditching the long form for RW. Is that how restaurants in other cities do it?

  5. -R. permalink
    September 21, 2011 1:36 pm

    I did the RW thing about 7 or 8 years ago. I think Jerry hit it on the head. At the time, I was showing a friend around town, and suggested a RW night out to sample a few of my then favorites. Big mistake there, and lesson learned. Not only did my old standbys completely poop out on quality, the scantiness of the portions forced us out for slices afterward. I’m all for trying new flavors and establishments, but if pandering to the lowest common denominator (sliders…really?), crapping out on ingredients/quality of preparation is the “new standard” for RW participants I’d recommend everyone save up four to five times the $20.11, pick someplace you’ve never been and have a real meal which showcases the establishment’s true abilities. Better yet, stick a fork in RW in general, and call it a day.

  6. September 21, 2011 3:23 pm

    You’re dead-on with the wedding food thing, which makes me nervous, as someone who might get married around here in the next few years, doesn’t have a million dollars to spend and appreciates good food. I don’t want to serve buffet crap, but I’m not sure how much else is out there (aside from barbecue, which is a possibility).

    • September 21, 2011 6:23 pm

      @KB, when my husband and I got married, we made food and drink among our top priorities. We opted for quality and we weren’t going to settle for crap. (That goes for the bar, too – most “open bar” packages are a total scam and a half.) We ended up getting married in the Finger Lakes (not too far away, but technically a destination), at a vineyard who used it’s lunch-only restaurant as a banquet facility in the evenings. The menus were based off of the regular menu, and the food was quite good.

      If you use a facility that is a restaurant first and a wedding venue second (or third, fourth, fifth …), or rent a space and use a caterer, you’ll get a higher quality of food, and you won’t be spending any more than at the mediocre banquet halls. In fact, depending on your planning, you might even spend less.

  7. Ellen Whitby permalink
    September 21, 2011 4:21 pm

    The best wedding food I had was at my own wedding. Right after the ceremony, my husband and I spent time in the “together” room. Some friends snuck us some of the hors d’oeuvres which included little eggrolls and baby lambchops. I can’t remember much else about the food. I’d rather not remember much about the wedding besides the singular moment which made it worth all the hassle.

  8. Stevo permalink
    September 21, 2011 5:16 pm

    “…I think we can all agree that Albany’s Restaurant Week is broken.” Yup, ‘nuf said.

    I just got back from Atlanta, and was shocked at how inexpensive the better restaurants are there.

  9. September 21, 2011 9:06 pm

    Headed to a wedding in a couple weeks catered by Hattie’s Chicken in Saratoga. THAT is wedding food.

  10. September 21, 2011 10:44 pm

    Yeah, by the quotes I enveloped the term “Wedding Food” with I was alluding to the worst of the genre. Perhaps I should have use “bad awards dinner” or “random club that you belong to’s banquet night dinner” as examples. I have no doubt that people have had good wedding food, that is not what I meant.

    Also, I was not generally indicting pricks ficks (that is a much funnier misspelling than my previous, haha!) menus. Of course they are often done well, that is not what I meant. I thoroughly endorse restaurants with limited menus. I have experience with the local variations on the theme and was just performing a little predictive analysis on how things were probably going to go down.

  11. Mirdreams permalink
    September 23, 2011 1:01 am

    For what it’s worth I think Taste ditched their regular menu and just had the RW menu last time around. I like them but think the service has gone way down hill from when it was Dale Miller, which is a real shame because it used to be my favorite restaurant in Albany.

    As for the wedding food thing, it’s worth making the things you care about a priority. We got married at the Albany Country Club and once we made it clear that there would be nothing with the word “Bud” in it served at our wedding the drinks director was very willing to work with my guy to bring in great craft beer and they didn’t even charge us extra.

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