Monday bustle: Diners skate out for Restaurant Week

Tony and Ana Jorge were making their way back to their car on Water Street as the rain stopped and the mercury dropped Monday evening, the first night of Restaurant Week. They had just enjoyed a romantic dinner at Tempo where they sampled French chef Brice Cunningham’s duck breast in a savory carrot cream sauce accompanied by Swiss chard from Hi-Five Farm in nearby Shadwell.

“It was really very good,” says Mr. Jorge. “The sauces and reductions especially— these are what you come out for.”

Luscious sauces aren’t the only reductions. On July 9, sixteen restaurants began offering a $26 three-course prix fixe menu— a tempting week-long deal considering that a single entree at such participants as Maya, Blue Light Grill, or The Melting Pot can easily top $30.

If the Jorges represent the typical customer experience— sated on good food and a good deal— then Cunningham might represent the average chef’s experience during a week when even Charlottesville’s most prepared kitchens brace for a rush of hungry foodies expecting exquisite concoctions from their favorite local spots.

As Cunningham rattled off Tempo’s French-fusion and progressive-American menu additions, his frenzied team of cooks sliced perfectly circular discs of beets to slide onto appetizer plates and drizzled glazes in elaborate patterns over seared skate. Add to this an unrelenting tide of servers balancing piles of the delicate food compositions in the crooks of their elbows, and the result is well-ordered chaos.

Tempo, enjoying an earlier-than-usual swarm of diners Monday night, is the third Charlottesville restaurant (Petit Pois and Fleurie are the other two) opened by Cunningham, who studied under world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse in France. The chef’s father left France in 2011 to join forces with his son at Tempo.

Where Tempo put its robust signature flavors on display for Restaurant Week, the nearby Blue Light Grill came up with a "something for everybody" menu aimed at drawing in diners who hadn’t previously eaten at the shellfish-centric Blue Light.

“This summer we’ve been very into pickling things, and we’re keeping everything very fresh, very organic, very local," says assistant head chef Corey Kuck. "This Restaurant Week we’re trying to show a little bit of what we do and still give customers what they want— very nice food from local purveyors.”

Like Tempo, Blue Light is also offering a skate dish with additional offerings of fettuccini and roast chicken breast. Its Restaurant Week desserts— a chocolate mousse triffel, crème fraiche panna cotta, and grilled peaches— could tempt the most refined palates. Yet a little past 7pm, the restaurant was about half-full, and a server mentions that it felt a little empty.

“We’re looking to have a steady Monday and Tuesday, because we know Wednesday through Friday is going to be really busy,” says Kuck. “It’s just the nature of the beast.”

Over at Maya, the menu reflects the restaurant’s standard nouveau southern vibe as well as some playful touches, like champagne sorbet garnished with Pop Rocks, the ubiquitous '70s-era carbonated candy.

“I had to go to the Dollar Tree to pick those up,” says owner Peter Castiglione as he stands in front of the nearly full patio facing West Main Street.

“We had people walking through the door at 5pm, right when we opened," says Castiglione. "Last winter, we did about 1,000 people, so we’re hoping to pull in around eight or nine hundred this week.”

One thousand diners will equal one thousand dollars for the PB&J Fund, a local non-profit that that connects kids with healthy eating habits and gets the 26th dollar of each Restaurant Week meal.

Maya’s menu features shrimp and grits in a smoked tomato gravy, grilled Wagyu sirloin, and seared salmon with fennel and spiced carrot couscous, enough choices for diners Kelly Oakes and Carolyn Polson.

“I had the fried green tomatoes and then for dessert a blackberry and basil sorbet,” says a smiling Oakes.

“We had the salmon entrée and the shrimp and grits appetizer— it was fantastic,” enthuses Polson, who runs The Inn at 400 West High, a new downtown bed and breakfast.

“We love that some of our dinner went to the PB&J fund," says Polson. "We always go to Restaurant Week.”


remember you server only makes $2.13 an hour... tip accordingly

I notices that many of what I could consider marquee restaurants that have participated in the past are not participating this year? I hope it means that they are doing so well that they don't need to do something like this to fill the restaurant during a typically slow week.

It seems like many of the places that have filled the holes are mid line restaurants where i expect good food, but not necessarily over the top interesting food and where i would consider a $26 dollar meal (sans alcohol) to be expensive for the restaurant.

At one point the hook did something similar to restaurant week, but you only got 2 plates (Main + app or desert) at a lower cost. It seemed like a good way to check out some of the restaurants that i wouldn't consider fancy and have a lower average price, but that i haven't had the excuse to check out yet.

ohh yumm melting pot! can't wait for that. Is that better? I forgot they advertise with you. Olive Garden Rules!

My guess, Logan, with absolutely no data to support it whatsoever, is that restaurants who participated in the past and are not doing so this time either didn't see any appreciable repeat business from customers who came for Restaurant Week or don't have summer staffing levels that would allow for a slammed restaurant. My bet is the former. Discounts and coupons and the like are good ways to get new people in the door. But just as with Groupon and similar bargain sites, a lot of businesses have found that bargain shoppers will move on to the next bargain and aren't necessarily going to be come regular customers.

Good points Chris. Also it costs the restaurants well over $1000 (in a check to The Hook, not the PBJ fund) just to participate. They have to pay The Hook for the "privilege" of participating in this "charitable" event.

That said, it does raise good money for a local charity and there are a lot nice menus and options.

does it really cost the restaurants well over $1000, paid to the hook?

Orzo apparently did over 1000 covers this week....the economics of the scale like that might, in fact, work out well for all involved.

Yes, some straight cash to The Hook plus a large commitment of advertising dollars.

Past restaurant weeks have gotten me to try places I would not have tried otherwise, and in many occasions I have gone back after restaurant week.
Overall i think it can be good money spent for the restaurant. It seems to be better than groupon (etc) because it is a slow week and they can achieve economies of scale.