Six Tips for Making Restaurant Week Better

While plenty of masochistic local eateries are gearing up for a second consecutive Restaurant Week, the charitable promotion officially ended last night.

And according to the comments posted here and on other local food blogs, the event was again exasperating for diners, servers and chefs. With rare exception -- I can vouch for the seamlessness of Restaurant Week at Al Biernat's, having dined there Saturday night -- guests and staffers seemed to end up in the same unenviable position of feeling exploited and mistreated.

Restaurant owners fume about razor-thin profit margins; chefs struggle to extract quality cooking from crews unaccustomed to feedings hundreds of people; servers seethe over miserly diners who camp out at their tables; and guests -- primed to expect a five-star dining experience at one-fifth of the standard price -- complain mightily about food and service.

So is all this misery avoidable? Absolutely. After the jump, we offer a few ideas for improving Restaurant Week and restoring the goodwill that should cling like a neodymium magnet to an event designed to raise money for the North Texas Food Bank.

Emphasize the Cause While press materials take care to stress the North Texas Food Bank receives $7 for every Restaurant Week meal purchased, none of the restaurants I visited during Restaurant Week mentioned the charity: At least two of my dinner dates were surprised to learn the event served as a fundraiser. I suspect if customers knew they were doing good by feasting on watermelon salad and seared scallops, they'd adjust their standards accordingly: Nobody grumbles about dry brownies at a bake sale.

More important, thrusting the cause to the forefront would create opportunities for the North Texas Food Bank to raise still more money. Why not add a line to guest checks so participants could make an additional donation? Dining Out for Life, the extraordinarily popular nationwide program in which restaurants earmark a portion of the proceeds received on a designated night for AIDS service organizations, uses a system in which roving "ambassadors" explain the project to restaurant guests and distribute contribution envelopes. Apparently, it works: Dining Out for Life annually raises $4 million in 55 cities.

Scrap the Regular Menu The smoothest service I encountered during Restaurant Week was at Loft 610, where the servers refused to even show me a regular menu. That experience stood in stark contrast to my meal at Five-Sixty, where the regular menus, sushi menus, cocktail menus and wine lists took up so much space on my table I considered asking for bookends.

I understand why restaurants would like to lure guests' attentions away from their bargain-priced prix fixe with, say a $55 steak, but I wish they'd confine their up-selling to alcohol. Multiple menus serve only to slow down the Restaurant Week assembly line.

Abandon the Three-Course Model Three courses sounds classy, but class doesn't come cheap. Why not permit restaurants to use their $28 portion of the guest check however they'd like? Think of it as the ultimate quick-fire challenge -- and an acknowledgment of local culinary creativity. Every chef who's turned out a staff meal knows how to make affordable food taste good. Personally, I'd rather sample fun, family-style casseroles at Craft than a spinach salad and smoked chicken pasta. Tweaking the three-course model would help mitigate the event's fustiness, which surely contributes to all those hard feelings.

Add an Automatic Gratuity You and I know to leave a decent tip, but infrequent diners who don't spend their time reading food blogs aren't always so generous. Servers really do get mistreated during Restaurant Week, and that's shameful. The whole point of the event is helping the needy, a group to which too many restaurant workers belong. Yes, there are servers at certain local restaurants who make incredible sums of money. But there are also single moms and struggling students who rely on tips to pay the rent for their shabby apartments. As much as the nicest restaurants may want to deny it, there's not much difference between the 5:30 p.m. Restaurant Week rush and a charter bus pulling into Cracker Barrel -- except for the mandatory tip.

Consolidate the Reservation System Restaurant Week headaches begin weeks before the event, with prospective diners racing to score the most-coveted reservations. What makes the process especially trying is that some restaurants use Open Table, some restaurants only accept phone reservations and other restaurants fill their books before the reservation period begins. That's silly. There should be one website through which diners can make all their Restaurant Week reservations.

Invite More Restaurants to Participate The list of participating restaurants is already massive, but it's predominated by restaurants with familiar names. Since the event's supposed to connect diners with restaurants they might not otherwise try, why not invite some of Dallas' great ethnic eateries to play? I'm guessing restaurants such as First Chinese BBQ -- where the average guest check is probably in the $10 range -- wouldn't have any trouble putting together a phenomenal meal for $28, a figure that terrifies high-end spots such as Bijoux. It would be tremendous fun to see what a talented kitchen could do with so much money.

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