Does Chicago Restaurant Week Matter?

Michael Nagrant / 02.03.08

Everyone’s been all atwitter regarding Chicago’s impending Restaurant Week Feb 22-29. The idea is 40 “local” restaurants will be offering reasonably priced fixed multi-course menus in an effort to promote and celebrate Chicago’s arrival as a top dining destination. I imagine the promotion’s also supposed to offer consumers a more affordable opportunity to check out the breadth of local spots.

I’m all for anything that raises national and local awareness for Chicago’s food treasures, but the restaurant promotion as it is now feels more like a weak publicity stunt on behalf of mostly corporately owned restaurants then a genuine accurate celebration of Chicago food.

Of the 40 “local” spots, it looks like only about ten of them are true independent local owner operator restaurants, places like Naha, Carnivale (if Jerry Kleiner counts as an indie anymore), and Aigre Doux. The bulk of the participating restaurants are hotel owned restaurants, NY based corporately owned restaurants, and national chains (since when is Buca di Beppo, a national chain founded in Minneapolis a “local” restaurant).

A real restaurant week would feature places like Blackbird, Charlie Trotters, North Pond, Alinea, Moto, Crofton on Wells, Takashi, etc. Furthermore scanning the restaurant week menus I could find, it looks like a lot of places are unloading lower margin and uninspired menu items for their prix-fixe selections.

The way I see it, this means a lot of tourists will probably end up eating steak frites, mahi mahi or tilapia in white wine butter sauce, veal parmesan and tiramisu and believe that’s all Chicago has to offer. Until restaurant week includes a greater breadth of “real” local restaurants and a cross section of interesting menu choices, it’s a waste of time. It’s also a waste of taxpayer resources, as the Chicago Convention and Tourist Bureau, which gets some its funding from the State of Illinois, is one of the primary organizers of this event.