N.Y. Eateries Fix Lunch Prices for 'Restaurant Week'

Food lovers are lunching at some of New York's finest dining establishments this week for about $20. That's a fraction of the usual price for some hot spots. About 200 eateries take part in "Restaurant Week," but finding a table takes careful planning.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Fridays, our business segment focuses on your money; today, that would be lunch money. There is no such thing as a free lunch, but during New York's Restaurant Week, you can at least find a fixed-price lunch. For the last two weeks, some of the city's best restaurants have been offering lunches for about $20. The event draws thousands of people to the city and, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, other cities are copying it.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Woman #1: How many people are you looking for?

JIM ZARROLI reporting:

On any given day, the restaurant Nobu in New York's TriBeCa is so popular it has to employ four people just to take reservations. And even then a lot of callers never get through. But if you tried to get a table this week, it was especially tough.

Unidentified Woman #1: OK, I do apologize, but right now we are completely committed for the next week, in terms of Restaurant Week, for lunch.

ZARROLI: Nobu is one of about 200 restaurants participating in Restaurant Week. It began as a publicity stunt during the 1992 Democratic Convention. People could get a three-course lunch at some of the city's best restaurants for $19.92. The event proved so popular that it was expanded to twice a year and now lasts two weeks each time. The difference is that lunches now cost $20.12, which is a nod to New York's campaign to snag the 2012 Olympics. Tracy Nieporent is director of marketing at the company that owns Nobu.

Mr. TRACY NIEPORENT: Theoretically, you can go out and have lunch every day for $20.12 so you can eat at five of the best restaurants in New York in one week's time and spend under $150. That's a pretty good deal.

ZARROLI: The catch is that the most popular restaurants fill up well in advance, so getting a table during Restaurant Week can take planning and dedication.

Mr. GARY GOODMAN: Sorry we're a few minutes late. It was 1:30.

Unidentified Woman #2: Your name? Gary?

Mr. GOODMAN: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: Excellent. Still going to be four of you?

Mr. GOODMAN: Yes.

ZARROLI: Gary and Rhonda Goodman(ph) are self-described foodies from Orange County, California, who've come to the city on vacation with their two kids. Gary Goodman says as soon as the list of participating restaurants was published on the Internet a month ago, he began calling for reservations. Today he shows me a printed itinerary of the places where he secured tables.

Mr. GOODMAN: Let's see, yesterday we ate at Jean Georges, and yesterday evening at Osteria del Circo (pronounced SER-ko) or del Circo (pronounced CHER-ko), and we have reservations at Cafe Boulud tomorrow, Mesa Grill, Aureole...

ZARROLI: Over the years, Restaurant Week has been copied by other cities, like New Orleans, Detroit and Dayton, Ohio. And it's even been tried in London. Restaurant owners like the event for several reasons. For one thing, it's a kind of loss leader. Again, Tracy Nieporent.

Mr. NIEPORENT: Sometimes people will order a bottle of wine that's more costly than the cost of their whole lunch but...

ZARROLI: So somebody might end up spending a little more than $20.12?

Mr. NIEPORENT: Oh, there's no question. But, you know, what I attribute it to, it's kind of like when you go to the movies, nobody goes to a movie and just pays for the admission. Everybody buys popcorn and a soda. And I think it's the same in a restaurant. They're--if the restaurant has wonderful things to offer, I think usually people will order something else just for the fun of it and to experience it.

ZARROLI: And there's something else. Today's junior executive on a budget is tomorrow's division manager, and Restaurant Week is the way of introducing younger customers to a place before they reach the expense-account years. The Swedish restaurant Aquavit on Manhattan's East Side can be a tough place to get a table, but even Aquavit has to worry about keeping its edge in a business that's notoriously fickle. Hakan Swahn is Aquavit's owner.

Mr. HAKAN SWAHN (Owner, Aquavit): Bringing new people is always very important for a restaurant because as it gets older, you--if you're only counting your regular clientele, they get older, too.

ZARROLI: Among those eating at Aquavit today is Kim Marten, a professor at Barnard College. She says Restaurant Week enables her to eat at places she couldn't afford otherwise. Her only gripe is that the menus at many places are sort of variable.

Professor KIM MARTEN (Barnard College): The food here is absolutely excellent and there's no question that they are showcasing their top-of-the-line things. At some of the other places, it seems sometimes like they don't put their really top stuff on the menu and I can't figure out why they wouldn't do that. Because you'd think that they'd want to attract new customers. But it's not true everywhere.

ZARROLI: In fact, NYC & Company, the city tourism agency that sponsors Restaurant Week, requires participating establishments to offer menus that are representative of their regular meals. A few restaurants that have cut corners have been barred from participating. There's another thing many customers don't realize about Restaurant Week. A lot of establishments in the city, including Nobu and Aquavit, already offer prix-fixe lunches all year round for about the same price they charge during Restaurant Week. And customers who can't get a table during Restaurant Week are often invited to try again once it's over. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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