Until this Style Weekly blog went up, I wasn’t going to post the story that I’d actually already written… well, not before Restaurant Week had ended. Now, I feel like Kanye West, speaking out on live TV in the middle of a pledge drive for the Red Cross. But, I trust that those who are enthusiastic about giving to the Central Virginia Food Bank and Meals on Wheels won’t be easily deterred or distracted, and I’ll bet they appreciate constructive criticism that might benefit future versions of the annual event (also, Kanye was right). Personally, I’ve already put out so much positivity about the event that my sincerity is going to come into question if I don’t come up for air. So, here goes.
As Deveron Timberlake reports on her Style Weekly blog, there are three restaurants participating in Restaurant Week this year, without the official blessing of the event’s organizer: Bonvenu, Coast, and The Melting Pot. Only one, Bonvenu, received a cease and desist letter, warning that their attempts to bill themselves as restaurant week participants would bar them from future official participation. The other two missed the application deadline, from what I hear. (during this post, I’m going to do my best not to name names and associate blame with a particular person, especially since I like that person’s restaurant A LOT, who doesn’t? So, expect pointed criticism, while trying not to point fingers – an impossibly fine line for sure)
At first, it seemed to me to be silly high school BS, where a big fish in a small town plays gate keeper by some arbitrary set of self-important rules. And then the lawyer letter comes to light. In the past year, I’d talked in passing, to chefs and restaurant owners who wanted to participate in Restaurant Week. Some were told that they’re not expensive enough. Another was told that they’re all full and not taking on any more restaurants. Then there’s the clause that you must first be open for a year minimum. That’s just the story that’s been told to people who can actually get a response to their requests to participate.
I understand what it’s like to make up the rules as you go, especially when the good intentions of a benefit event are concerned. But, who cares if a restaurant isn’t usually expensive? Sure, it’s fun to do RW at a place you normally couldn’t afford (that’s my approach), but it’s also great when a restaurant kicks it up a notch for the cause. What professional cook doesn’t like to show off a little and make fancy food for a special occasion, maybe see the regular customers dressed up for a change.
We could debate this one, I’m sure, but it’s not even consistently applied by Richmond’s Restaurant Week coordinators. Caliente isn’t expensive. Caliente is a bar, and a relatively cheap restaurant, better known for their 100 hot sauces than anything they actually cook. Most of Michelle Williams’ restaurants, if they are expensive, absolutely should not be. Europa, Water Grill, The Hill Cafe, Hard Shell, and deLux are some of the most underwhelming restaurants Richmond has to offer – conspicuously straining RW’s advertisement of “exceptional dining.”
Hey, if we’re going to criticize restaurants that want to be allowed in, then that leaves open the members of the elite cooking clique who are granted the right to be seen giving to the cause. And I do get it that whatever the appeal of lack-luster restaurants, they must be satisfying somebody, so let their customers get in on the philanthropy where they’re comfortable. Too bad the same consideration isn’t given to every restaurant that asks in.
This year, Bonvenu posted on their Facebook page that they didn’t qualify for Restaurant Week because they hadn’t yet been open a year. Meanwhile, Secco Wine Bar and Amour Wine Bistro were both official participants and they’ve both only been open less than six months. These stories undermined my enthusiasm for the event, but only slightly. Overall, I love seeing restaurants trying to make good on the PR that’s sure to come from a good showing during the high profile event. It adds a spirit of good natured competition for chefs and speculation for food-enthusiast onlookers, and in the end it’s for a good cause. I hope it continues, and I hope it grows. This isn’t a critique of George Bush not caring about black people. It’s about being fair and taking restaurant philanthropy to new heights.
In the end, I have to wonder why it’s a particular restaurant convening Restaurant Week for the Food Bank and not “The Food Bank’s Restaurant Week.” I seriously doubt the Food Bank would see much wisdom in fewer restaurants participating and donating to their bank account annually. “We’re all full,” probably wouldn’t come up. And with more widespread participation, we might actually have some diversity in the cuisine.* If they did it bigger, the resulting revenue would more than pay for the staff required to coordinate it. Or how about multiple restaurant weeks? With themes? Or neighborhood based? I dunno, I’m just saying that we don’t have to limit our giving to one event a year and we don’t have to ask for permission. Leaders: step up. There’s surely more creative ways to approach this than centralizing it on one restaurateur and projecting a clear impression of the petty playing of favorites.
UPDATE: Here are some quotes from email exchanges with some local restaurant owners (given with condition of anonymity):
…that fine dining clique is sooo powerful in this town. They have all the media people in their pocket ,etc.
The [RW coordinators] use Restaurant Week as a self promotion tool for them and their friends. Its pretty common knowledge amongst restaurant people. Most just don’t care because its also a chaotic choice to be involved. But the boost in income is drastically disproportionate to the money donated. And there shouldn’t be a limit to who can participate in a charity.
Also the restaurants that don’t or can’t participate suffer an unusually slow week in the Fall which is typically a busier time. Its like herding cattle through a chute. They all get herded to the same 24 restaurants. Meanwhile the rest of the city is tumbleweeds.
Yes it is good to donate to the Food Bank. But they would benefit greater from a direct donation than these restaurants taking credit for being high end middle men.
UPDATE: More ideas for improving Restaurant Week from Style Weekly.
*If there’s one reason why Restaurant Week is underwhelming for some, it’s the monotony of the menu options. If participation is dependent upon membership in a clique of New American boutique restaurants or haut versions of Southern classics, we’re likely missing out on many would be supporters. I was asked by a coworker which Asian restaurant would I recommend for Restaurant Week. Um… there. are. none…? No Wild Ginger. No Moshi Moshi. Indian in the West End? Ethiopian would be good too. And who wouldn’t flock to Mekong in anticipation of the surprise beer course, (following the surprise beer amuse bouche, naturally).