UNION COUNTY, NJ — As Councilwoman Linda Karlovitch gazed at the families and groups of friends strolling Boulevard and the side streets of Kenilworth, she swelled with pride. This “sleepy town,” as she put it, had been transformed into a dining destination for those hungry for fine fare.
“It was lively, that was the vibe,” Karlovitch said June 11. “The streets were filled with people. A resident said to me, ‘I never see all these people up on the Boulevard. This is great.’ “
“Restaurant Week,” such as that held in Kenilworth from June 4 to 8, has drawn diners to downtowns across Union County for years. With each passing year the promotion seems to become increasingly popular, elaborate and prevalent locally.
Rahway hosted one in January and Westfield followed suit the next month. Summit’s Restaurant Week actually runs 10 days, from July 19 to 29. Cranford has one coming up Aug. 13 to 17.
Although each municipality adds its own flavor to its event, there are some common ingredients. Local eateries offer multicourse dishes for a set price from a “prix fixe” menu, typically an appetizer, main course and dessert. As a result, the food is offered at a fraction of the usual price at participating restaurants.
The promise of an economic bump, along with the aroma of quick seared ahi tuna, sizzling fajitas, shrimp curry and pad Thai, fills the air in these downtown areas.
“Generally, towns have Restaurant Weeks during typically slower period for restaurants so you can boost business,” said Nancy Adams, executive director of Summit Downtown Inc., recently. “But, it also gives residents or visitors to town a chance to try some restaurants they may have wanted to try but stayed away from.”
Kenilworth and other towns are offering up more than piping hot plates of palak paneer and stuffed gnocchi. Karlovitch said her borough added other promotions almost every night. One night was a designated fitness night, complete with a local business holding a yoga class out on the sidewalk.
At crafts night, kids decorated coffee mugs. And, of course, Special Improvement District officers and downtown managers have discovered that music pairs well with food. Karlovitch said jazz bands, local church choirs and the high school choir provided music in Kenilworth during the week.
Like Kenilworth, Rahway partnered with several downtown businesses to hatch some outside-the-box ideas.
Amy Garcia Phillips, executive director of the Rahway Arts and Business Partnership, said the local YMCA offered babysitting. Wet Ticket Brewing and the bar inside the Watt Hotel offered discounts on drinks for guests holding a restaurant receipt. And the Union County Performing Arts Center offered a discount on tickets for those with restaurant receipts.
Adams said that, in a wider scope, Restaurant Week is an attempt to provide something more than just some great food: It is also about promoting all downtown businesses.
The ubiquitous antique boutiques, comic book shops and coffee houses — many of which fought off the specter of colossal malls in the 1980s and 1990s — are now in competition with online shopping sites such as Amazon. The ability to order almost anything with a few clicks of a mouse keeps many Americans from venturing past the front doors of local businesses.
However, Adams said, “People still want to experience things. So, retail is starting to transition a little. The Millennial Generation, in particular, they want an experience when they go into a store. So, you have things like escape rooms taking the place of what might have been a hardware store, back in the day.”
Since New York held what is believed to be the first Restaurant Week in 1992, it has been difficult to quantify its success in terms of dollars and cents. Garcia Phillips said, short of every restaurant opening its books, there is no way to gauge the impact. Neither she nor Adams wanted to estimate the economic boost a town could expect during Restaurant Week.
Anecdotally, restaurant owners such as Kenny Shah, who owns Riberto’s Italian Seafood Bistro and Steakhouse in Kenilworth, report having twice as many customers seated at their tables as usual. He called the promotion “a great success” adding that he hopes the borough will consider running it twice a year.
However, Shah added that a lot rides on whether his $20 prix fixe menu creates returning customers.
“I didn’t make money out of this,” Shah said. “It was $20. I’m not making money for a three-course meal, but it was a good advertisement for my restaurant so people know that I’m there. And especially, I’m not on the Boulevard itself, I’m on a side street. I don’t have too much exposure for the public on the Boulevard. This way, people found out and know that I’m on the side street.”
But not everyone is a fan of Restaurant Week. Naysayers run the gamut from some restaurant owners who refuse to participate to critics, who say chefs cut corners on the quality and quantity of food.
So-called “amateur eaters” — who arrive for Restaurant Week with children toting McDonald’s Happy Meals — threaten to sour the experience for other diners.
Even waiters, waitresses and bartenders report that diners sometimes tip based on the amount of their prix fixe-priced meal rather than the regular price point of the food.
Ann Marie Williams, managing director of the Rahway Arts and Business Partnership, said she has heard these criticisms before, but points out that people eat up Restaurant Week.
“I will tell you why I think it’s worthwhile in Rahway,” Williams said. “I’m originally from New York and Restaurant Week in New York versus in a town of 28,000 people, why it makes a difference is: If you look at the menus from our restaurants, they’re not sample sizes. And, they don’t change much off their regular menus. They’re not going to make anything different. So, you’re not going to go to, say, The Irving Inn, during Restaurant Week and all of a sudden, they’re making chicken fingers.
“What you’re going to find is an opportunity to sample something that you’re going to see on their regular menu and the opportunity to add an appetizer and a desert.”