Philadelphia chefs reject City Center's Restaurant Week
As Center City District’s Restaurant Week enters its second week, we check in with some chefs who won’t be serving up the $35 three-course menu.
For the first time, chef Mike Stollenwerk is officially, undeniably cooking in Center City. His newly expanded Fish didn’t move far — from 17th and Lombard streets to 1234 Locust St. — but it was enough to qualify him to participate in Center City District’s Restaurant Week.
Not that he’s taking them up on the offer.
“I think they change the boundaries every year — either that or they don’t like me,” says Stollenwerk of previous trouble participating (he’s not paranoid — the boundaries do change; this year they have expanded to include North Broad Street). “But after hearing the horror stories from other chefs, I’m kind of glad we never went through with it, and we won’t be this year. Everyone comes out for Restaurant Week thinking they’ll get the experience of what the restaurant has to offer, but it’s really not the case. If you come to Fish, we want to give you the experience of Fish — we don’t want to dumb it down for two weeks.”
Stollenwerk doesn’t need the business generated by offering the three-course, $35 menu. After food magazine Bon Appetit called out his pint-sized BYOB Little Fish as one of the country’s best seafood restaurants in 2008, filling tables isn’t a concern.
For Meme chef and owner David Katz, however, a little Restaurant Week publicity wouldn’t hurt. He’s technically not in the Center City District at 22nd and Spruce streets, but despite stellar reviews and storied fried chicken, he’s close enough to wonder if he’s losing business to those just a couple blocks away who were invited to participate.
“We’ve done the $35 three-course anyway. We’ve done OK. But not being on their literature — not being plastered all over the city — really hurts us,” says Katz. “If Restaurant Week was open to us? I don’t know. It’s kind of a tough decision. I can see the complaints about the staff being run ragged, and it can be tough when you have a lot of restaurants, but I might participate. We’re 38 seats — all we would have to do is sell a drink to hit our average check.”
As for McCrossen’s Tavern, they’re having their own party in Fairmount. Chef Todd Wentz’s “Anti-Restaurant Week” menu one-ups the original’s offer with a $30 three-course meal (plus $15 for wine pairings) that’s in the same league as any Center City fare: Braised veal cheeks, wild boar cavatelli and roasted spotted skate round out the menu’s second course options.
“We are not so much ‘sitting it out’ as we were not allowed to participate,” says Lauren Harris, McCrossen’s general manager and sommelier. “So we say, ‘Not invited to the party? Throw a better one.’”
Vedge out — for now
When husband-and-wife vegan restaurateurs Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby closed Horizons in the South Street District to open Vedge in Washington Square West, they found themselves looking at much bigger rent checks for the new, larger space.
Even so, they’re holding out on signing up for Restaurant Week.
“We don’t know if we’re going to sit this out forever — as a means of survival we might not be able to,” admits Landau. “We want to support ourselves — we have a 4-year-old son and employees, so it’s not all hippie s—, but it was never about the money. This seems like a cheap buck. I look around at the quality of the food and the staff that we have here, and I don’t know if I can put us through that.”
On the Web: Marc Vetri
Marc Vetri has been one of the more vocal opponents of Restaurant Week.
The chef took to his Facebook blog earlier this month with some strong words: “Just because someone tells you that you’re getting a deal, it doesn’t mean that you really are. RW is a short sighted way for restaurants to make a quick buck by lowering their standards, making one menu so its easy to turn and burn, while basically getting the same or MORE cost per head cover.”
The backlash — and some regrets — continued on Twitter:
@KSbraga (Sbraga chef Kevin Sbraga)
4 courses for $45 or 3 courses for $35? Want a break from restaurant week? Dine @SBRAGA_dining for a great meal and value everyday.
@KSbraga glad you’re not doing restaurant week brother...it’s such a scam. Too bad people don’t realize it.
I think @foobooz should print a “not participating in RW guide”. That way people looking to eat a good meal can go eat somewhere.
Who cares about restaurant week? You can get 3 courses for $35 every week at Brauhaus...
Alright restaurant week, you win.I guess we need to join next year. It is crickets in here. Actually, we wish there were at least crickets.
Meme not doing restaurant week. But you should try it anyway and you can order anything you want for the same money...what a deal!
Center City District: The numbers speak for themselves
As for big-name chefs such as Marc Vetri declining to participate, Michelle Shannon, vice president of marketing and communications at CCD, isn’t worried.
Heavyweights Stephen Starr and Jose Garces are regulars, and business is good. “Every time we do Restaurant Week, I have people calling begging to be in it who are out of the district,” she says.
“I think the numbers really speak for themselves. Last year was our most successful one ever: 69 percent of the restaurants saw an increase in sales. Somebody’s always going to be on the fringe of whatever boundary we create. Our mission is to make money for the property owners within our district — it’s not in our mission to promote everything in Philadelphia.”
Follow Monica Weymouth on Twitter @monicaatmetro