Restaurant Week wars

February 17, 2012

The fifth annual Chicago Restaurant Week kicks off at lunch today, but it's not actually a week; it's 10 days, and officially ends next Sunday, February 26 at dinner. Some restaurants extend until the end of the month, this leap year, the 29th.

But it can be a love/hate relationship, with both diners and restaurants, and sometimes a battle for reservations—and in some cases, no reservations at all.

Here's the deal: restaurants offer special $22 lunch menus and/or $33 or $44 dinner menus. But it's wise to confirm if the Restaurant Week menu is being offered during your desired dining time. The special menus may not be available on certain days or certain meal times—like Sunday brunch for example.

Any restaurant in the greater Chicagoland area could participate, and this year more than 262 restaurants are in (despite what the official list looks like it says; Café 28 is listed twice). Chicago, Evanston, Northbrook, Rosemont, Schaumburg, Glenview, Lincolnshire, South Barrington, Oak Brook, Naperville, Elk Grove Village, Lombard, Itasca, and even Geneva are all represented.

Listen to Louisa Chu and Claire Zulkey on Eight Forty-Eight

It's hard to believe "Chicago" Restaurant Week started with only 35 restaurants just five years ago. Restaurant weeks across the country and around the world started as a way to boost business after the slow season between New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day.

Slow for some, not all. Both of Rick Bayless' restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, are in, though the former has long wait times and the latter, tough reservations.

Not all restaurants participate of course. Girl & the Goat—whose Exec Chef Stephanie Izard hosted the kick-off event, First Bites Bash, benefitting the Greater Chicago Food Depository—is not doing Restaurant Week itself. Fifty restaurants partcipated in the charitable event, but you won't find all on the RW list.

Two of the city's most creative chefs are collaborating on what they've dubbed, somewhat tongue in cheek, an Anti-Restaurant Week Dinner. Phillip Foss, chef/owner of EL Ideas, and Shin Thompson, chef/owner of the Michelin one-star Bonsoirée, will create a $150 15-course tasting menu—including a motoyaki scallop and lobster dish, a Japanese mayo-baked prep. The dinner, February 21 at Bonsoirée, is sold out with a wait list of 50. 

Foss told me that because of the demand he and Thompson will do a second dinner at EL the following week.

How did this come about?

"Shin and I just wanted to cook together," said Foss. "It was his idea to do the Anti-Restaurant Week concept. We've had mixed emotions since we announced it."

"We understand that a lot of people don't have a lot of disposable income. We're definitely sensitive to that. And most restaurants are struggling during the winter doldrums."

"From my time at Lockwood, Restaurant Week was not really indicative of who we were. We had to put out items that were cost effective. Yes, we were much busier, but we were not necessarily the restaurant you were going to experience later."

"We're not looking to piss people off. We're just looking to have a good time. And we're trying to create momentum for us."

I asked Foss if, in his experience with Restaurant Week, given the relatively low price points, if he was ever allowed to not meet margins, and just eat the cost, and count it as a marketing cost.

He laughed out loud.

"You can quote that laugh," he said.

Phil Vettel, the Tribune's Food Critic, listed his picks for Restaurant Week. The Nightwood $44 four-course dinner menu had him "puzzled and intrigued" and me too. Vettel wondered, "What, for instance, is one to make of 'foie gras agnolotti, big Italian red made little,' or 'family meal chicken thigh, napkins'?" I didn't know either so I asked Exec Chef Jason Vincent.

"We make a foie gras custard and fill agnolotti, these tiny little pastas," said Vincent.

Sure, but what about the rest?

"We take Super-Tuscans wines and reduce them down into a syrup," he said, "We were just being goofy smart-asses."

And the chicken thigh?

"We've got a guy here named Nate who works for us during the wintertime. He's an employee of City Farm over on Division. He supplies us with all our vegetables in the summertime. He came up with this recipe for family meal, where he spit roasts chicken and then drops it into the deep fryer, getting the skin really crispy. Then he tosses it in a homemade Sriracha with lots of vinegar, garlic, and chiles. It's notoriously messy, so we use a lot of napkins. Sometimes we have to change aprons and shirts."

This is the first year Nightwood, a Michelin Bib Gourmand located in Pilsen, is doing Restaurant Week. How does Vincent feel about it?

"It's always great to have new people coming through the door and into the neighborhood," he said, "it helps people realize we're not on the other side of the planet."

"I guess at this point I have idiot's reserve. We're working hard to get everything ready and we know the food's going to be good."

"The toughest part is making sure that we have all the farmers lined up. I've been wheeling and dealing with all of our farmers in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. I'm just hoping people will understand that if we get a frost, we might not get spinach in one day."

"Our Restaurant Week menu might just be like our regular menu and change on the weather's whim."

Another restaurant that caught my eye was Manny's, because, as a cafeteria-style deli, their prices are already relatively really low. Turns out they're doing lunch and dinner for two at $22 and $33 respectively. Lunch includes two half sandwiches, two soups, and two potato pancakes. Dinner: two whole sandwiches, two soups, two potato pancakes, plus two desserts. But will their hearty servings stay the same?

"Yes, absolutely. We would never change the portion size," said Matt Raskin, fourth generation owner/manager, "We always want to make sure our customer gets the full experience."

Manny's does also offer a discount to WBEZ MemberCard holders too, but you can't use it with the Restaurant Week menu. Another caveat: you can't combine discounts at any participating restaurants.

"You can use it next time," said Raskin, "We're MemberCard #473."