A recent Eater listing of restaurants either not participating in Restaurant Week or offering alternatives to the official program generated a lot of lively commentary. Clearly, Restaurant Week is a divisive topic for both diners and restaurant workers. Josh Lewin is the Executive Chef at Beacon Hill Bistro, the independent hotel restaurant that Jason Bond headed up before he started Bondir. Beacon Hill Bistro is a Restaurant Week participant. Lewin spoke to Eater about the decision process that goes into joining the promotion, how his restaurant changes (and how it doesn't change) during Restaurant Week, and his advice to both consumers and restaurateurs for making the most out of a promotion that actually makes up one twelfth of the year. He also has a challenge for those restaurateurs who are "abusing the system."
Tell me about the decision making process Beacon Hill Bistro took in joining Restaurant Week.
It is an owner's decision here, but we do talk about it each time. It happens twice a year. The summer one definitely makes sense. I think restaurants are crazy if they don't take advantage of it — because restaurants are slower and we're happy to have those people in. We do all sorts of things — special pricing, special prix fixe menus — to try to capture a summer tourist or people in between weekend trips. So I don't see any harm attaching ourselves to a bigger marketing machine. The big caveat there is doing it right and not taking advantage of the system.
What does doing Restaurant Week right mean to you?
We do our same style of menu. We do simplify plates a little bit, mainly because I assume most people coming in for Restaurant Week are people we're seeing for the first time. So we haven't gained their trust yet. We do things on our regular menu like whole animal presentations. We recently did a goat six different ways on one plate for one person. That's for the diner who knows me, who trusts what we can do with meat. So we're not putting things like that out on the Restaurant Week menu. But that doesn't mean they're not going to get the same care and attention. We also offer our complete full menu so if you walk in for Restaurant Week and don't like what you see, we have everything else available a la carte.
Is that hard on the kitchen when you have all these extra dishes on the menu?
Yeah, definitely. But a friend of mine recently said something along the lines of "since when is it appropriate to limit our offerings because it makes it easier on the kitchen?" I agree with that. We're inviting people in to dine with us for the first time; I think it would be silly to not have both of our menus. They should see a representation of what our day to day is when we're not in the middle of Restaurant Week. We should make good on the offer we made by joining this marketing effort: we're going to have something specifically tailored to the Restaurant Week diner, we're going to do it right, we're going to do our best, and people should feel comfortable coming in to order it.
I've been on both sides of the opinion on this. I've argued to not participate in the past. But when we decide we're going to sign up, you can be sure we're going to put our name behind it. We're going to treat the ingredients and the guests the same way.
You had said Restaurant Week makes sense in the summer. Does that mean you don't think winter does?
I wouldn't say it doesn't make sense. Restaurant Week is funny. It lasts for two weeks and is twice a year. So it's really a full month. In my personal opinion, I think it would make more sense if it was a one-off. There are just so many deals out there — Groupon, Gilt, Restaurant Week — maybe it would be more special if it were less frequent.
Some people only come out for those deals. But hey, you know if you're going to make deals available you can't complain when people come in for it. The spirit of how it started was asking people to come out and take a chance on you. I ask people to spend up to $50 or $60 — that's before they even ordered a drink — to have a decent night out with us. There are plenty of people who could afford that and are willing to do it, but you know what? It is a risk if you don't know us yet. Restaurant Week lets us invite more people in. We're really after those people that are honestly exploring opportunity. If we approached it differently and said "okay we're going to be slammed for two weeks. We're just going to make our money. Then we'll wait for the next Restaurant Week and we'll do it again, and in between everything is different." That's one way you could approach it. But that sucks from the diner's point of view even though it's good for the bottom line of the restaurant in most cases. If you can afford to do it and fill your dining room, hey good for you, but that's not what Restaurant Week is about to us.
That's one of the knocks against Restaurant Week ... places doing just that.
Honestly, that sucks. And it's too bad. That's so against the spirit of it. We put ourselves out there, we attach to the deal. But we don't dumb down our standards. If I can grab one or two of them back as a regular, fantastic. But even better is if they've explored us, and they've enjoyed us even though they can't afford to come out every week. But the next time their birthday rolls around, they say "you know what, let's splurge over there. It's not Restaurant Week, but we know they did a great job." That's the best outcome in my opinion, grabbing someone who is not an everyday restaurant diner but who really does appreciate a good time.
Any reports from the front of the house on differences in the dining room?
Service definitely moves quicker. We feel it in the kitchen, too. People aren't lingering nearly as much. You can definitely feel they're not doing this every Thursday night. We have to be prepared for those entrees to fire quicker. People don't discuss their appetizers and share as often. Normally, a lot of people share starters at the table, and that slows down service, which is actually good for the kitchen's pacing. During Restaurant Week, people tend to move faster onto the next dish than our normal guests. We've been doing it for years, so we know what to expect and get ready for it.
Any advice for the "oh shit, here comes Restaurant Week" crowd in the service industry?
Not everybody is able to make a choice based on their professional situation. Even myself, at the end of the day, it's not my decision if we participate in Restaurant Week. However, those guests are still my responsibility when they come in here. If you don't like it, don't participate. I know that's an over-simplification. You're a server and need to work. I'm not naively saying "go get a different job." But anybody in any place of employment is going to have certain tasks throughout the year that aren't their favorite. That's no excuse to not do your job professionally and properly.
Any advice for would-be Restaurant Week diners?
Go get feedback. Ask your friends. Not everyone performs their Restaurant Week at the same level. I've tried a couple. I hear great things about TW Food during Restaurant Week. I always have a good time at No. 9 Park. I go to No. 9 a couple times a year because I love the Gruppo. People shouldn't feel bad trying somewhere for Restaurant Week if they go there already. If you appreciate a restaurant, there's no reason you shouldn't go out and try what they're offering during those two weeks.
I had actually asked about that on Twitter and you responded similarly then.
I hope that the people we're inviting, at least some of them, are those who can just not afford the restaurant otherwise and this is a special thing to them they get to take advantage of. As a parallel to my personal life, Kristen Kish is fantastic. Barbara Lynch is fantastic, but Menton is not in my budget for a regular dinner. So if I had time during Restaurant Week, I wouldn't feel bad about trying their alternative Restaurant Week deal. I want people to feel the same way coming into this restaurant. If it's a special occasion for you, we're here to make it one, regardless of the prices that day.
I hope people take it as a challenge. If people out there are abusing the system and not respecting the guests who joined them that night: If you want to participate, participate fully. That's what we do here.
· All coverage of Beacon Hill Bistro on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of Restaurant Week on Eater [~EBOS~]