When I decided to eat at a different restaurant every day or night of Triangle Restaurant Week, many of them for the first time, I mostly fretted that I would be tagged as an amateur eater.
Restaurant staff, I feared, would mistake me for some cheap opportunist, a vulture who only dines out with a Groupon voucher in hand. Instead, the gracious staffs of the seven restaurants I visited uniformly assuaged my fear. Rather than feeling judged, I felt welcomed. I shared jokes with my servers. I felt like a regular, full-fledged customer, regardless of my good deal and late reservation.
But after seven consecutive nights of contemporary Mexican and hip fondue, of sushi specials and sad chicken, of delightful shrimp-and-grits and bad salads and classic Indian desserts, another prevailing question remained: Why, in the course of a one-week event isolated to one region with a highly touted and ostensibly thriving food scene, had my gastronomic experiences varied so much? Triangle Restaurant Week produced some meals that were transcendent and others that, after several decades spent dining out, I can safely say are the worst I've ever had.
At least I didn't feel uncomfortable.
Nearly one hundred area restaurants participated in the ninth edition of Triangle Restaurant Week, each offering a three-course prix fixe. The biannual event occurs in those drab months when diners don't eat out so much, in hopes of boosting sales during the culinary downturn. For any restaurant that wishes to participate, the process is simple: The place pays a flat fee, sets its price, and sends a menu to the organizers (in this case, a Raleigh marketing firm called Triangle Blvd) so that it can be promoted.
For the diner, this setup can equal a hell of a deal, with lunches costing $15 and dinners running $30 or less. To best capitalize on the value, you need to do a little homework, especially by comparing the special Restaurant Week menu to the standard menu and seeing if the bargain is any bargain at all. With some of the more affordable participants, a three-course meal might cost less than $30, anyway; on the other hand, such a meal at many establishments might surpass $60.
In my week of experience, I found that, if the costs from the regular menu closely align with the special menu's costs, the food is invariably better. But only two restaurants—Mez, near Research Triangle Park, and 18 Seaboard, in Raleigh—really dazzled with the deal and the meal. Both offered beautifully executed dinners made with ostensibly lower-cost ingredients. The meals provided insight into the regular menu, making me want to know more. I will be returning to both.
But the problems with Triangle Restaurant Week—both as a deal for diners and a showcase for the Triangle's food scene—begin as you inch toward the realm of higher-end restaurants. They pare down their regular offerings to the point that a mix of cheaper ingredients, limited options, and comparatively dull approaches produce results that range from terrible (Babylon maddened me) to merely meh (Faire seemed aptly named).
Disappointment was common, too, when the one-off Restaurant Week menus diverged completely from the regular menu. Though the meal described on the menu seemed appetizing enough, the results missed the mark. Was it because the kitchen staff hadn't had proper time to experiment and perfect these new additions? Was there some back-of-the-house attitude that it didn't matter what these barbarian Restaurant Week diners think—who needs that business, anyway? Was this just a way to get people in the door?
I've read the arguments of chefs and restaurateurs in other cities who choose not to participate in such events because they don't believe it brings repeat business. They say they cannot offer a meal that meets the standards of the restaurant at such a deep discount. Likewise, many of the area's restaurant elite, or the ones always winning local and national accolades, do not participate in Restaurant Week—no Poole's or Stanbury, no Lantern or Standard, no Bida Manda or An. Since they typically have packed houses, they opt out. That's understandable enough.
In my experience, though, many of the most expensive restaurants could benefit from a more democratic, less self-important stance, and an affirmation that, yes, we can still cook an incredible meal for people who might not otherwise be able to afford our steep prices. Such outreach could go a long way to an improved perception of a restaurant—and the cities that supply them with customers.
But I'm not blaming the restaurants so much as the Triangle Restaurant Week model, which seems to favor building quantity rather than promising quality. The system should rethink the way it asks restaurants to participate. As is, there is little regard for uniform standards. With more input from restaurants on their costs, losses, and benefits, Triangle Restaurant Week could tweak menu prices to better accommodate the needs of all participating restaurants, from lowbrow to high-end.
What if there were more safeguards, more of a back-and-forth between the presenter and those who produce the food? Only participate if you can create an interesting menu that capitalizes on and showcases the restaurant's philosophy, ingredients, and approach. If the restaurant can't make that grade, why should it impugn itself—and local restaurants as a whole—by making a commitment it can't keep? If Triangle Restaurant Week is meant to spotlight the dining scene's variety, the representatives should be held accountable.
Still, when I asked the staffs of the seven restaurants I visited about the week's attendance, almost all reported experiencing a major uptick in individual sales due to new customers. (A few admitted there were an inordinate number of bad tippers. C'mon, people). Some even said regulars were thrilled to see a new offering or specials centered around old favorites.
At Mura, the sushi place in Raleigh's North Hills, a server said he'd done $1,600 in sales for Saturday lunch and that Mura had doubled its Restaurant Week business from last year. By the time I dined there on Sunday, the ingredients had started to run out, while one item, the coconut miso ramen, had proved so popular the chef had decided to upgrade it to the regular menu.
That's when it occurred to me that, in a region where so many restaurants are offering similar cuisine, with pimento cheesed-this and duck-fried that, Triangle Restaurant Week gives area chefs a perfect chance to experiment, to create new trends, to see what hits and misses with a receptive audience that's already paying a bit less. Why not conjure new approaches during the slowest months of the year and try to create a buzz around adventure? Part of this is on us, the customers, to know what we're getting into—the Triangle's best chefs, trying something new and maybe failing.
But I'd eat the effort, and I suppose it couldn't be much worse than a few standard flops I had during the last week. And, recognizing the effort, I'd surely return.
The second time around, I wouldn't even need to worry about being an imposter.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Assorted spreads"