Providence Restaurant Weeks ‘blew the doors off'

By Kimberley Donoghue

The Capital Grille was so packed, it could have easily been a Friday or Saturday night. But it wasn't. It was a Tuesday at 7 p.m., and the crowd was noticeably more varied - younger - than one would typically expect.

The draw? An appetizer of field greens, tomatoes and fresh herbs, followed by a bone-in kona-crusted, dry-aged sirloin with shallot butter and accompanied by mashed potatoes, and topped off with a crème brûlée. A meal that would have cost $69 on any other night of the week, but from July 10 to July 23, the price tag was just $29.95.

Providence and Rhode Island foodies painted the town red, so to speak, during this year's Providence Restaurant Weeks, leaving one restaurateur declaring:

"This one blew the doors off all other ones. We were quite surprised with the response," said Nick Rivard, manager of Luxe Burger Bar, which has participated in the event since its rebranding in July 2009.

Luxe, which has a lower price point than say, Waterplace Restaurant, participates in the event in the two-for-one meal deal, an idea which developed several years ago in order to include a wider variety of restaurants, according to Kristen Adamo, vice president of marketing and communications for the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, which organizes the event.

The bureau does not collect statistical data on Restaurants Weeks but measures its success by the amount of time visitors spend on its website. The site had 722,243 page views during the Restaurant Weeks of July 2009, a number that jumped to 994,036 this year.

"The amount of time [spent on the site] skyrockets during Restaurant Weeks, and what that tells me is that people are spending some serious time studying those menus," Adamo said. "People do comparison shopping - a lot of people do little scorecards ... it's really succeeded beyond whatever I thought it was going to be."

Adamo has helped organize Providence Restaurant Weeks - which includes restaurants that aren't bureau members (and sometimes aren't in Providence) in its listing for a $250 fee - since its inception six years ago, which, aside from the adding the two-for-one deal, has largely remained the same.

"I think that's why it's so successful, the format doesn't change, it's familiar to people. It has become part of people's summer plans, which was the objective when we started," she added.

"It shows people that all restaurants in Providence are accessible. You can get a meal at 100 restaurants for $30," Adamo said noting that the number of participants has grown from an initial group of 45 to 98 this year. The success led the bureau to organize the first winter Restaurant Week in January.

Gianfranco Marrocco, owner of participating restaurants Mediterraneo and Caffé Dolce Vita on Federal Hill, among other properties, said he had pushed for the winter version.

"It wasn't as busy [as the summer one] but definitely for that time period [it was successful.] All of my places are seasonal - it's like being at the beach. In summer, we triple in business and then in the winter we diminish. It injected some much-needed income in that time of year," Marrocco said. He has participated in Restaurant Weeks since its inception and is very vocal about his enthusiasm for the venture.

"Any restaurateur that has half a brain ... why wouldn't they participate in this? It's definitely a marketing tool, there's a lot of new people - you have a 50-50 shot of making a customer. If you take out an ad in a paper ... on TV ... you have no way of knowing if that person came," he said.

Marrocco decided several years ago - when the economy began to go downhill - to extend his Restaurant Week offer all year round.

"One of the smartest things I've ever done because I was able to survive," he said.

Mediterraneo normally does 120 to 140 people for dinner. During Restaurant Weeks, it did about 170 - a bump in customers which was seen with many others. At Luxe, the number jumped from 80 to 130 on a Monday night and at Gracie's, 194 Washington St., owner Ellen Gracyalny estimated that the 60-head average surged to between 100 and 150 people.

"People really save up to go out just during Restaurant Week," Gracyalny said to Providence Business News. Gracie's was, literally, the first restaurant to "sign up" for the Restaurant Week idea six years ago.

"It's nice to see that there are more restaurants getting involved. When we first started doing it, there were [some] skeptics, but we've gotten to the point where we've had to turn [customers] away. It's become very popular," she said.

Snookers participated for the first time since its relocation to 53 Ashburton St. and expanding its menu, noting that it saw the most uptick in business during the lunch hour.

"The main reason that [we did] Restaurant Week was to get the word out about our new location. You're definitely taking a little bit of a loss [on the menus for Restaurant Week] but you're definitely [incentivizing] people to come by," said Liz Ainslie, assistant manager.

"I don't know if it was a huge loss ... but at the end of the day, we got more people in here so we look at it as a profit," she added.