The Siren Call of Restaurant Week, and How It All Started

The Restaurant Week gambit is so old that it has been co-opted by cities across the country and abroad and even by New York City boroughs and neighborhoods. But the prospect of a discounted gourmet meal still tickles the taste buds of savvy foodies like Radha Day.

Ms. Day was a teenager living in Italy when business leaders in New York cooked up the inaugural Restaurant Week in the summer of 1992. But since she arrived here a decade ago, she has faithfully sampled prix fixe menus in aspirational dining rooms around the city.

She can describe with relish each course of the first Restaurant Week lunch she enjoyed in 2007 and already knows where she will partake when this year’s edition of the expanded promotion begins this month. The 390 participating restaurants officially begin taking reservations Monday morning, but Ms. Day and her colleagues at the United Nations got a head start.

The table they have their sights set on is at Riverpark, an East Side creation of celebrity chef Tom Colicchio that has posted its Restaurant Week offerings. So, Ms. Day already has her palate primed for the octopus carpaccio appetizer and the zucca filled with patty pan squash.

“My dad has this saying: ‘I live for the 12 centimeters of tongue in my mouth,’” Ms. Day said, explaining the origin of her love of food.

During past Restaurant Weeks — the program now spans four weeks in midsummer and three weeks of the winter — Ms. Day’s adventurous appetite has led her deep into the East Village for Austrian cuisine and to Aquavit to sample the Scandinavian fare of chef Marcus Samuelsson.

“For sure, there was herring involved,” Ms. Day said, when pressed on what she ate at Aquavit several years ago. She recalled prodding a Singaporean colleague who balked at the herring by saying, “Come on, you guys eat weirder stuff than that.”

Enticing New Yorkers and tourists to patronize establishments during slack periods is the aim of Restaurant Week, said Tracy Nieporent, the chairman of the restaurant committee of NYC & Company, the city’s tourism marketing agency. This summer’s promotion will run from July 24 through Aug. 18.

“The reason we do it is it always generates a good volume of business when times are a little slower,” said Mr. Nieporent, who is the director of marketing for the company that operates Tribeca Grill and five other restaurants.

But that benefit was not envisioned a quarter-century ago when Tribeca Grill and 93 other restaurants signed on for the first iteration of Restaurant Week. The program was conceived as a favor to the delegates and media representatives who came to town for the Democratic National Convention in July 1992.

Charged with finding ways of entertaining the visitors, Tim Zagat and Joseph Baum persuaded restaurateurs to draw up bargain lunch menus that they expected would be money-losers. The original price of $19.92 for a three-course meal at such celebrated places as Tavern on the Green and Windows on the World drew an overwhelming response.

Accounts from that year — long before Open Table or text messages existed — describe phones ringing off hooks from morning until night. “Nobody had ever had this choice of restaurants,” Mr. Zagat recalled in an interview last week.

Though out-of-towners were the intended targets, the offer appealed to local residents who considered culinary temples like Montrachet and Le Cirque to be beyond their reach, Mr. Zagat said. “When you told them that would cost only $19.92, they said, ‘I can afford that,’” he said.

Restaurant owners were pleasantly surprised when the promotion turned out to be a boon for business, Mr. Zagat said. “We thought we were asking them to make a charitable contribution to the city at a time when we had a lot of reporters here,” he said, recalling that some expensive French restaurants begged off because they couldn’t afford to accept so little.

“But almost immediately after we did it just about everybody said, ‘Gee, this was good. We thought we were going to be losing a lot of money this week,’” Mr. Zagat recounted.

Restaurants now plead to be included, even though the cost of admission to Restaurant Week has not kept pace with inflation. The price is holding steady this year at $29 for lunch and $42 for dinner.

This year’s participants cover all five boroughs and 34 cuisines, said Fred Dixon, the chief executive of NYC & Company. He cited data from Open Table, which calculated that Restaurant Week reservations made online since 2007 had generated $108 million in spending.

“Dining is such an integral part of a New York City visit,” Mr. Dixon said. “It’s part and parcel of visiting New York and living in New York.”

Over the years, the Restaurant Week concept has become as ubiquitous as beet and goat cheese salad. Los Angeles cast it as Dine LA. Indianapolis has Devour Indy. Toronto stages Summerlicious and Winterlicious. It has spawned imitations even within New York City. Brooklyn held Dine In Brooklyn in March. The Sunnyside section of Queens held the fourth annual Sunnyside Restaurant Week in September.

Mr. Nieporent said NYC & Company should be able to keep Restaurant Week going “for a long time like a hit show.” He said he had not seen any indication of a loss of momentum, joking, “Someday we’ll do Restaurant Year and take a few weeks off for good behavior.”

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