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The award-winning pastry chef shares what it was like growing up—and eating—in the Washington 'burbs. By Emily Codik
Christina Tosi’s party cakes and “compost cookies” will soon arrive at CityCenterDC. Photograph of Tosi by Neil Wilder/Corbis Outline

Christina Tosi, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef behind Momofuku Milk Bar in New York and Toronto, is coming home. This year Tosi—who grew up in Springfield—will open a branch of her quirky bakery in CityCenterDC, next to sister restaurant Momofuku. Can’t wait that long for Tosi’s playful sweets? Check out her second cookbook, Milk Bar Life, out this month. We spoke to Tosi about her memories of growing up—and eating—in the Washington burbs.

What do you remember about growing up in the area?

Most of my memories are of softball games in Falls Church with my sister, yard sales across town on the weekends with my grandma, grocery-shopping and errand-running with my mom, learning to drive an old Volkswagen bug down Old Keene Mill Road with my dad.

Where were some of your favorite places to eat?

Both of my parents worked incredibly hard, and eating out was a treat. Dinners on the go—en route to a cross-country race, school event, or softball practice—were the norm. My fondest memories of eating out were our trips to Baskin-Robbins on Thursday nights, if my older sister and I had behaved the week prior, and sliding into a booth at Springfield Pizzeria or Delia’s for mozzarella sticks and a cheese pizza. Ding How Carry Out’s egg rolls were always a treat. For really big occasions, we’d dine out with neighbors across the street, on a big bowl of red sauce at Bonaroti in Vienna or Argia’s in Falls Church.

What about now?

I love checking out aspiring bakers’ offerings at local farmers markets when the weather is nice. My older sis, who lives in Reston, does the vetting and gives me the tour when I come home for a slumber party.

This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 06:00 AM/ET, 04/20/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Stinky cheese from Cypress Grove, Frenchie's pastries, and of course, tacos. By Anna Spiegel
Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern will open a brick-and-mortar version for their Chaia tacos this summer. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Every week, Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon can be found griddling tortillas and slinging their locally sourced, vegetarian Chaia tacos to long lines of fans at the Dupont, White House, and Georgetown University farmers markets. Next up for the pair: a brick-and-mortar Chaia restaurant in Georgetown (3207 Grace St., NW), slated to open this summer. We caught up with them over coffee at the Dog Tag Bakery and talked stinky cheese, Dark and Stormies, and of course, tacos.

Fine-dining restaurant:

Stern: Restaurant Nora. Nora Pouillon is a pioneer in the organic movement. She stuck to her guns, made a difference, and I love that.

Simon: Buck’s Fishing & Camping. It has great service, you know you’re going to get a good meal, and it has the best lighting ever.

Farmers-market snack:

Stern: Toigo Orchards would be for the healthy version, whether it’s a peach, pear, or tomato—I’ll snack on a tomato like some people eat an apple. If it was a guilty-pleasure day, Frenchie’s croissants and pain au chocolat.

Simon: Sliced radishes from Tree and Leaf.

Breakfast:

Stern: My hangover cure—smoked salmon and bialys. I buy Changing Seas, a Norwegian smoked salmon, at Whole Foods.

Simon: I’m pretty classic. A piece of brown Atwater’s bread with a fried egg, slice of tomato, and salt and pepper.

An Illy coffee and flaky scone at Sweet Teensy Bakery. Photograph by Hong Le.

Caffeine source:

Stern: Kew Park coffee. You can find it at the Palisades farmers market. Also Farm Girl blend by PT’s Coffee—they’re single-source, responsible.

Simon: Illy espresso.

Fast food:

Stern: I always keep a cookie jar filled with Lärabars, particularly blueberry and lemon.

Simon: I love French fries. Kafe Leopold in Georgetown has really good ones.

Condiment:

Stern: Red-pepper relish, the kind people put on an Italian sandwich. I throw some on black beans and fried eggs. I don’t have a favorite brand—I just buy it anywhere from Safeway to A. Litteri.

Simon: Tabasco, and also a drizzle of hot sesame oil.

Salsa in a jar:

Stern: Frontera chipotle salsa. It’s smooth, with just the right amount of bite.

Simon: Herdez Salsa Casera. It is not fancy, but I like it because it reminds me the most of authentic Mexican salsa and has no added sugar or preservatives. It’s very traditional—you can still see the white of the onion, chopped tomato, a little fresh cilantro.

Chaia “farm to taco” stand at the Dupont Freshfarm market turns out some of the best in the area. Photo by Anna Spiegel.

Taco:

Stern: Tacos Holas in Mexico City. They have 25 kinds of fillings in big rubber bowls. No sneeze guard or anything. We were in Mexico City three days, and I went there twice.

Simon: TaKorean. I love their tofu taco. They were an inspiration for us to build a taco business.

Cheese:

Stern: I like stinky cheese, so Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog or Rogue Creamery Rogue River Blue.

Simon: Real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Slice off a chunk and eat it the Italian way—no cracker, no bread, just roll it around in some really good balsamic vinegar.

Dark and Stormy ice cream from Ice Cream Jubilee. Photograph by Victoria Lai.

Cocktail:

Stern: Dark and Stormies. I couldn’t drink them all year long, but they signify summer.

Simon: A margarita. I love tequila because it doesn’t have that sleepy effect—it has that pick-you-up, go-out-dancing effect.

My dream restaurant would have...

Stern: Steps to the beach. There’s a restaurant in Tulum called Posada Margherita. Your feet are in the sand, they’re serving you amazing food that’s not even Mexican, but it’s delicious.

Simon: We’re going to have a Chaia that’s a bed-and-breakfast, and we can just live there. I want to end up by the sea.

This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 11:58 AM/ET, 04/17/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Washington toque could trump the Food Network chef-lebrity. By Anna Spiegel
Could Victor Albisu beat Bobby Flay? Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Can Del Campo chef Victor Albisu out-cook Bobby Flay? We may find out tonight on the Food Network, which airs an episode of Beat Bobby Flay featuring the local grill-master.

The show, which starts at 10, mixes elements of Iron Chef (secret ingredients!) and Throwdown With Bobby Flay, in that final competitors take on the chef/host. For Albisu to reach that stage he'll first have to beat fellow contender, Cleveland's Eddie Tancredi, in a cook-off starring a mystery ingredient. Whoever wins will move on, revealing his signature dish to Flay. The duo will then battle it out to make the best version, with bragging rights on the line.

So far, it's been a big week for local cooks on national television. Last night, Kapnos chef George Pagonis advanced to the three-part finale of Top Chef season 12 after making the final four last week. Though his dish didn't win—a prize that would have secured him a place in the finals—he lives to battle another day. Tune in for the final Boston-based episode before the remaining cheftestants move on to Mexico on January 21.

Posted at 11:58 AM/ET, 01/15/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
This husband-and-wife team have created one of the country’s top seafood destinations and put Georgetown back on diners’ radars—and that was just in 2014. By Anna Spiegel
Fabio and Maria Trabocchi in Fiola Mare's dining room. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Power dining has existed in Washington since politicians first started consorting in taverns, but few embrace its modern incarnation better than Fabio and Maria Trabocchi. Their trio of restaurants—Fiola, Casa Luca, and Fiola Mare—are favorite stops for both serious food lovers and Hill and Hollywood elite. Still, the couple say another category—“FTDs,” or first-time diners—is equally important. Each day, the restaurants’ management teams identify a few fresh faces among their customers and give them VIP treatment: a glass of Champagne, an extra course, or the “dessert bomb,” a final blitz of sweets.

That level of care and attention—seen in smart sommeliers, gracious servers, and welcoming hosts—extends through all three restaurants, each of which has a place in our top 15 this year. What keeps us wowed, though, is Fabio’s luxurious Italian cooking, whether we’re eating soulful tortellini in hen consommé at the more casual Casa Luca or dining on some of the country’s finest seafood at Fiola Mare, which put Georgetown back on the culinary map.

The Trabocchis’ first restaurant, Fiola, is approaching its fourth anniversary—and is where the couple met 20 years ago in the sceney downtown space then called Bice. Fabio, who was raised along Italy’s Adriatic coast, had just taken his first kitchen job in America at age 21; Maria was managing the books after finishing college away from her native Spain. The young cook’s profile rose quickly—he went on to become executive chef at the opulent Maestro in Tysons and then took over the stoves at Fiamma in New York (where he garnered a Michelin star).

When Fiamma shuttered during the recent recession, the Trabocchis returned to DC. That the lofty Bice space was available when they decided to open their first restaurant in 2011 was serendipitous, but it also reaffirmed that Washington was home. They’ve since brought their young children—Aliche, 13, and Luca, 11—into the hospitality fold—Luca has been cooking in the eateries since he was eight. “There’s not an on-and-off button,” Maria says. “We’re all in it together.”

What’s next? The Trabocchis say there will be another venture—they’ve opened a new spot every year and a half so far—but that the expansion will be deliberate so their restaurants can grow together as a “family.” Bring on another round of dessert bombs.

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 04:27 PM/ET, 01/12/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
A new competitive cooking show for the Top Chef alum. By Anna Spiegel
Chef Spike Mendelsohn will host Midnight Feasts, a late-night competitive cooking show. Photograph by Chris Flynn.

The Festicle isn't the only thing coming down the pipeline for Spike Mendelsohn. The Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza toque will host a new television show on the FYI Network called Midnight Feast

Based out of New York's Chelsea Market, the series will feature one-hour episodes in which chefs are allowed full access to the Union Market-esque food hall after hours. Contestants make ambitious meals out of ingredients found in the various shops, from Italian speciality stores to seafood markets. Winners leave with a cash prize equivalent to ten times the total price of their ingredients, while losers have to pay for every item they grabbed. So pack your knives and go, but don't forget the tab. 

Spike fans can catch him playing host and head judge on the series premiere October 16 at 10 PM. 

Posted at 01:30 PM/ET, 09/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The celebrity chef’s first Washington venture is slated for 2015. By Anna Spiegel
Peter Chang (right), known for masterful Szechuan dishes such as mapo tofu, heads to Rockville. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Big news for Peter Chang devotees: The master of Szechuan cuisine plans to open a Rockville restaurant next year. A release from Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is behind the 3,100-square-foot space to be occupied by Chang in Rockville Town Square, says the eatery “will specialize in healthy and traditional Chinese cuisine and will be unique in concept from his other locations.”

The elusive toque has gained a cultlike following among his five Virginia restaurants, with eager diners ready to eat wherever he’s cooking next; the New York Times recently profiled his movements. The closest eatery for Washingtonians thus far has been Peter Chang’s China Cafe in Fredericksburg, with other locations in Richmond, Williamsburg, and Charlottesville. The Rockville eatery will mark the first Chang venture in our area, and will be open for lunch and dinner. 

Stay tuned for more details as they become available. 

Posted at 10:31 AM/ET, 08/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
He has a serious mustard collection and secretly likes to make dinner out of a king-size Almond Joy bar. By Anna Spiegel

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Michael Schlow may be based in Boston, but the James Beard Award-winning chef has Washington ties that go beyond his newly opened South American-influenced restaurant, Tico. Schlow’s father was from DC, one of his most memorable meals was at Jean-Louis at the Watergate, and he’s looking to open another local spot (we’re keeping our fingers crossed for Italian, one of his areas of expertise). We caught up with the affable father of two, who talked about his love of Almond Joy, his mustard collection, and his trusty hangover cure.

Favorite fine-dining experience: “One was Jean-Louis at the Watergate. Three things stuck out: the foie gras course, who I was eating with (my sister and my best friend), and that it was the night Marion Barry got arrested.”

Snack: “Saint Agur cheese. In the dead of summer, a really ripe tomato with salt and pepper, a slice of Saint Agur, and some warm bread.”

Guilty pleasure: “I’ve been known to make dinner out of a king-size Almond Joy bar.”

Beer: “I don’t drink a ton of beer, but I’m loving DC Brau and Atlas Brew Works right now. In the summer, there are few things more refreshing than a Corona with lime, ice-cold.”

Cocktail: “I love a perfect Negroni. It’s sophisticated, interesting, and complex. And really good silver tequila blanco on the rocks with a splash of fresh grapefruit juice.”

Tequila: For super-high-end, Casa Dragones and Clase Azul are two of my favorites. If I’m just making a cocktail, Milagro Silver.”

Hangover cure: “I’m a sucker for cold Chinese food, a Coke, and then going back to bed. I don’t drink soda, but with a hangover I’ll have a Coke.”

Always in my fridge: “A serious mustard collection—it would be the envy of mustard lovers around the world. Almond milk. And there’s always pancetta, eggs, and cheese so I can make carbonara.”

Jarred tomato sauce: “The only jarred sauce I’ll eat is Mario Batali’s. It’s delicious. I hate him for it, but it’s delicious.”

Song to get amped to: “The first day at Tico, I cranked the music—it can go very loud—and played ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica.”

When I’m not in a chef’s coat . . . “I like nice clothes, since I wear a uniform all day. I like a Zegna suit, Theory shirts. I’ve been buying shoes from Cole Haan and its collaboration with Nike.”

VIP to cook for: “There seems to be a great connection between the music world and food world. For my birthday, Mike Mills from R.E.M. came down here. Billy Joel is playing at Fenway Park and we’re going to do a dinner together after. We’ve been friends for years.”

On my nightstand: “Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.”

If I could have four people, living or dead, over for dinner . . . “Thomas Edison—he was a badass. Walter Cronkite. And Julia Child. I don’t want to throw Bono in there because he’ll hog the conversation. Let’s add the Edge from U2. He’s quieter but a beautiful man.”

What I’d make: “Everyone would get a stiff drink to start. I went to Julia Child’s house and she literally just gave us Scotch and Goldfish crackers. I’d make an Italian dinner—antipasti, salumi, a piece of leaky burrata. Rigatoni with broccoli rabe and sausage. A Florentine steak with lemon and grilled vegetables. For dessert, chocolate-chip cookies and Almond Joys.”

Herb: “Fresh thyme—it’s the most versatile.”


This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 08/15/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The celebrity chef—excited about his homecoming—talks about his love of spinach dip, his dislike of Dan Snyder, and the new space (his biggest yet). By Todd Kliman
Celebrity chef and restaurateur David Chang confirms plans to open a Momofuku in DC. Photograph by Gabriele Stabile.

The talented New York chef David Chang called Tuesday to fill me in on the details of the new Momofuku, set to open at CityCenterDC in the spring or summer of 2015.

At least, I think that’s why he called.

The self-laceratingly honest, F-bomb-spraying chef didn’t go too deep into specifics, mostly because he said he hasn’t really figured out what sort of restaurant he wants to fill the space. In the meantime, however, he bared his angsty soul in a 30-minute conversation that spanned a range of topics.

Chang, who grew up in Northern Virginia, sounded almost giddy at times, bubbling over with enthusiasm and vowing to make his homecoming a memorable one. “I haven’t been this excited,” he told me, “in a long, long time.”


The Space

At 4,500 square feet, it will be the largest of any of his restaurants outside of Toronto. He’ll be in the same complex as fellow NYC chef Daniel Boulud.

“It’s an extraordinarily amazing space, but you wouldn’t traditionally associate it with Momofuku.”

He considered spaces that were smaller and full of character, but: “I don’t really want that. It’s too snobbish in a way.”

And yet: “I don’t really want to serve burgers, either.”


The Vision

“It’s going to be a Momofuku restaurant but . . . where I want to take it is to make it a little bit more—not just accessible. It’s going to be exactly what we do and nothing like what we do at the same time.”

Experimental?

“Absolutely not. But yes, in some ways, too.”

No ambiguity there.

“To me the super-interesting right now is straight down the middle. Like, super-casual dining. … I don’t want to make food for foodies. And I know that’s really inflammatory if read the wrong way.”

How will it differ from other Momofukus?

“I don’t want this to be just another outlet of Momofuku. We’ve never opened another outlet. This one’s going to be different from everything else. Will it be wildly different? I don’t know. We just want to serve great food. And that takes time.”


His Approach

“We want to be good neighbors. We want to enhance the town. I want to help DC. I still read the Washington Post every day. All my friends and family are there. I root for all the teams there. I was a hair away from opening up in DC ten years ago. I opened in New York because I had more of a support network there. I just don’t want to let people down. You know? I just don’t want to let people down.”

On the other hand: “We’re going to make mistakes.”


The Menu

“There’s gonna be stuff that we’ve never done before, or that we’ve done, but not done a lot of.”

And pork buns?

“And pork buns.”

Any chance we’ll see a culinary homage to Wes Unseld? (Chang’s Twitter feed used to have a strapping pic of the Hall of Fame center who manned the pivot for the ’78 Washington Bullets.)

“I wish, I wish.”

Meantime, for all those who are busy stoking the fires of the Kevin Durant to DC movement—#KD2DC—are you officially down for the cause?

“Oh, yeah. Whatever I need to do. ’Cause we’re so close.”

Since we’re already off the rails, how about talking a bit about the Redskins and Daniel Snyder? (Chang went on record almost two years ago with his interest in buying the Redskins.)

“The name thing is hard for me because, yes, it’s terrible. I understand why it needs to be done. But I’m divided. I have a weird allegiance to the Redskins I grew up with, the Joe Gibbs Redskins. And at the same time I have an extreme dislike of Dan Snyder. That’s the only reason I would want to accumulate a stupid amount of money, is to buy the Skins. Look, DC deserves a team that like the Spurs or Patriots. The only way we can do that is if everyone boycotts the Redskins until we get a new owner. My suggestion is that all the Redskins fans root for the Raiders, until the Lerner family comes in and buys the team. Or Leonsis.”


Current Culinary Enthusiasms

“I’m fucking infatuated with fucking Salvadoran cuisine. Not that I’m saying I’m trying to tap into it.”

Anything else?

“Spinach artichoke dip. Chicken fingers.”

Seriously?

“Simple shit.”


Changian Angst, part I

“It feels strange to be coming in and not be the underdog. I want to be the underdog.”


Changian Angst, part II

“We’re gonna take a lot of bad falls. I know it.”

How do you know?

“We don’t open restaurants that work right away. They’ve all been unique restaurants. All the recipes are different. Momofuku Toronto, there’s nothing that’s the same. The pork buns are the same but that’s it. . . .”

Eventually, they do work. And you have tons of fans to prove it.

“You know, at the end of the day, I think people are gonna be like: ‘Fuck this place.’ I’d love to make everyone happy, but you know . . .”


A Final Message, in Advance of Opening

“Don’t judge us now, and don’t judge us a year from now. Judge us in five years, or ten.”

Find Todd Kliman on Twitter at @toddkliman.


UPDATE (1:20 PM): A Momofuku representative says that an outpost of Momofuku Milk Bar, the dessert branch of the empire headed by James Beard Award-winning chef/Northern Virginia native Christina Tosi, will open inside the new restaurant. The sweets shop has a cult-like following for its crack pie, compost cookies, creative cakes, and more.

Posted at 11:59 AM/ET, 08/13/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
In Washington’s dog days, when diners dwindle, many local restaurateurs head off on foodie junkets to research dishes, revive old ones, or find a whole new brand of hospitality. Here are a few itineraries. By Luke Jerod Kummer
Chef Stefan Trummer plans to travel to Budapest this summer.

Stefan Trummer • Trummer’s on Main

Destinations: Vienna and Budapest.

“I’m opening a coffee and wine bar in Gainesville at the end of the year. Austrian coffeehouses are a whole different experience. You get a nice cup of coffee, a glass of water, Champagne, tiny sandwiches. Some have cherry tomatoes, baby corn, mayonnaise—they’re all different. But it’s the atmosphere: the service, the silver trays, the pastries and newspaper in a beautiful environment. That’s why I’m going to Budapest. One of my dreams has been to do a bistro here—not French but Eastern European. I thought I’d see it myself first. I’m always looking for inspiration.”

Photograph of New Orleans postcard by Found Image Press/Corbis.

Matt Adler • Osteria Morini

Destination: New Orleans.

“My wife and I have been to New Orleans, but it’s been about ten years, so we’re interested in seeing how the city has changed post-Katrina. We’re focused so much on Italian at Morini, so in terms of actual flavors, I’m not sure it’s going to relate. But I’m interested in what they’re using—Gulf oysters have been doing very well the last couple of years, and there may be some things I’d be able to apply with the local stuff.”

Photograph of Japan by Aduldej Sukaram/Alamy.

Kaz Okochi • Kaz Sushi Bistro

Destinations: Japan and Korea.

“I already took a vacation in May, more a family trip than business, though I ate as much as I could. In Japan I had frozen crème brûlée, something I’d never had. It kind of makes sense—it’s made of custard that’s then steamed or baked, but it’s pretty much the same as how you make ice cream. We’d been serving Kahlúa-flavored crème brûlée—I started simply putting it in the freezer. Before we serve it, we blowtorch the sugar, which makes the custard halfway melt. Now we have a frozen Kahlúa crème brûlée.”

Hawaii postcard by Larry Fulton.

Spike Mendelsohn • Good Stuff Eatery; We, the Pizza; Béarnaise

Destinations: Costa Rica and Hawaii.

“In Costa Rica, the food is simple and authentic—a lot of great fruits, and ceviche. It’s just so pure, organic, and the mangoes are out of this world. There’s a great sushi place in Malpaís. It has no name—a little hut near Florblanca resort. In Hawaii, I’m going to Kona with Marcel Vigneron for the Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival and back to Oahu for the North Shore Food Summit. There’s a chef over there, Chris Kulis, who I used to work with, for Thomas Keller at Bouchon. Chris has a restaurant called Capische in Wailea and just opened a new spot called the Market, where he bakes his own bread. Oh, my God—he does an amazing veal chop. He sous-vides it for hours, then bastes and roasts it. He’s one of the best chefs I know.”

Photograph of Tel Aviv market by Tim E. White/Getty Images.

Ashok Bajaj • The Bombay Club and seven others

Destinations: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“The Israelis have a lively food scene, so who knows what I’ll learn and come back with? I’m taking somebody with me who’s been there many times, so we’ll explore what’s happening. Everybody talks about the markets being very avant-garde, so I’m going to check them out. And there are some modern Israeli restaurants that have opened up. I plan on learning more about Mediterranean cuisine and a lot of the other influences.”

Postcard by Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy.

Mike Friedman • The Red Hen

Destination: Rehoboth Beach.

“When I was a kid, we’d go down to the Jersey shore and do a lot of grill-outs. For the last four years, my wife and I have vacationed in Rehoboth—it’s my getaway spot now. A lot of stuff, especially when we were doing the Red Hen’s opening menu, was inspired by those tastes of summer. I had a dream to do steamers, which are soft-shell clams. My grandmother would pour them in a big bowl, and all the juice would be at the bottom with this braised celery. Ah, dude, they’re absolutely delicious. I’ve been able to source them over the winter, to make sure a couple companies have them held for me. Most of them end up going to Jersey, but I’m going to get my hands on some.”


This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 03:00 PM/ET, 08/08/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Quality control. Limited menus. Why one restaurant owner says no. By Anna Spiegel
Restaurant Week doesn’t deliver the value it once did, says Dino's Grotto chef and co-owner, Dean Gold (left). Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

For all its benefits, Restaurant Week can be a fraught time for all involved. Customers, rightly, want a good dining experience and a good deal. Restaurants, rightly, want to fill seats during an otherwise slow month—the original purpose behind the promotion—and satisfy guests without losing money. Sometimes these interests conflict, and parties on both sides opt out. One such example is chef Dean Gold, co-owner of Dino’s Grotto in Shaw.

“As a longtime participant in it, I just don’t feel like it’s a great deal,” says Gold, who partook in the official Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) Restaurant Weeks for seven years at the original Dino in Cleveland Park.

Gold isn’t ignoring the summer promo entirely, offering an “anti-Restaurant Week” menu that he feels is fair to his customers: ten “tastes of Dino” for $35. Here, he speaks with us about his plans, thoughts on Restaurant Week, and how to find a good meal.

How have you seen Restaurant Week change?

At one point, it was a good thing. I really feel that it went away from restaurants like mine when it went to $35. Basically, the way people eat at my restaurant, $37 is what it takes to have three courses, so you’re saving two bucks. It’s just not that good of a deal.

Every purveyor puts out specials for Restaurant Week. You look at what they’re offering. People who specialize in wild salmon and are pushing it one week want to sell you the lousiest farm-raised salmon for Restaurant Week. Meat companies are putting deals on lesser cuts of conventional beef, when their point of pride is all-natural beef. During Restaurant Week they’re pushing conventional and really poor-quality cuts. If you’re doing Restaurant Week, you need to be able to put together a menu. Restaurants need the help.

When did you begin to see the change?

Probably about two years ago. We track our sales, and the bulk of Restaurant Week had just fallen off dramatically. We try and cobble together something that’s a really good deal for people, and if you don’t get a big bump, it’s not a good thing.

They [RAMW] have partnered with OpenTable, and if you’re not on OpenTable, it’s hard to get a bump from Restaurant Week. It cost us $2,000 a month [for OT]. Then it’s another $1,000 to be part of Restaurant Week, because we had to pay $500 to the Association and then another $500 to be part of the promotion [dues are based on the annual gross sales of the restaurant]. I finally got fed up with it and just said, hey, let’s be honest. It’s not a good deal.

Why do you think it’s less of a good deal now?

More and more people are doing it. You have a small group of people who do it right, with a full menu and so on. One comment today on a chat was if the restaurant doesn’t offer three choices, one of them being vegetarian, the restaurant isn’t doing right by Restaurant Week. I was like, “Whoa, three choices?” I don’t go to a restaurant for three choices. I might go for my favorite dish, but that’s not the way I dine in a restaurant.

It’s also part of the increase in the deal mentality—you have the LivingSocial, Groupon phenomenon. You’re bringing in people who like the culture of the deal sites, who aren’t going to pay full price. A lot of people are going to restaurants they wouldn’t go to because it’s Restaurant Week, which is part of the idea, but they’re less in tune with what those restaurants are doing.

Is there any way to tell at the outset if you’re going to have a good Restaurant Week experience in a restaurant?

You have to look at the menu. Look at their regular menu, and then look at what they’re offering you, and see if they match up. If the menu is very different, then you’re looking at a place that’s faking you out.

Did it used to be that more high-end restaurants participated, so diners felt they were really getting value?

More high-end restaurants are participating today than they used to. For the most part, it’s absolutely not what they’re doing on an everyday basis. It’s not what their food is about. There are restaurants that normally have very particular ingredients and offer really outstanding quality products, and then you come into Restaurant Week and it’s all very conventional.

If you had to go to a place for Restaurant Week, where would you choose?

Bastille; I think it’s really solid cooking. Very few restaurants are posting menus on the RAMW site, so it’s tough. Daikaya has an interesting approach, with a lot of different small plates. That, to me, because of the variety, would be a place I’d go.

Posted at 02:09 PM/ET, 08/07/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()