Darien still hoping to make town a dining destination
Joan Agresta has lived in Darien for 24 years, and she never really considered the place a good town to dine out.
It was too expensive, and there weren't many places to choose from.
At least what she used to think.
So it was that she found herself out to lunch at last Tuesday with her friend, Darlene Fox of Stamford.
The two friends decided to dine at The Goose, a bistro and pub on Center Street in the heart of Darien. As one of the participating restaurants in this year's Restaurant Week, a variety of lunch menu items were available for a fixed price of $20.10. In this case it was the right price for Agresta.
"If it weren't for the prix fixe menu, I may have just come in and have a burger and a salad," she said. "It's a nice way to say other people that `I've been here' instead of `I had a burger'."
Restaurateurs who are tired of hearing the cliché that Darien is too expensive to eat out are hoping other people will give it a shot this week, as several restaurants, including Backstreet, Rory's, Giovanni's and about 20 other well-known Darien eateries have been offering fixed-price meals to give diners a chance to sample the best of their menus without breaking the bank.
"It gives people a chance to try new places and it keeps with the holiday spirit," said Mike Friedman, general manager of The Goose. "These are tough economic times. The public is a beneficiary of this because we have to be on top of our game."
This is the second year that Darien is participating in Restaurant Week, a phenomenon that started in New York City and has cropped up in many towns and cities in recent years as a way to showcase local restaurants and to drive business. As of press time, it was too early to say exactly how much more money might be brought in, but many restaurant owners have reported a slightly higher number of diners, especially at lunchtime.
"This is definitely to entice people to come in at a lower price point," said Will Marty, manager of The Melting Pot on Grove Street, which is for $30.10 per person was offering a full meal of cheese fondue, salad, entrée and chocolate fondue for dessert. "We're hoping it will expose new people that haven't been in before, get our name out there."
Since last Sunday, and lasting until Friday, Dec. 3, participating restaurants have agreed to offer a fixed-price lunch menu $10.10 and $15.1 at some of the more casual eateries, while the higher-end restaurants are charging $20.10 for lunch and $30.10 for dinner.
"It worked in New York City. Why wouldn't it work here?" said Betty Jewett, who was eating lunch at Backstreet Restaurant on Center Street with her husband, Kirk. As Darien residents for about 50 years, she said recalls a time when there wasn't much of a choice of where to eat out in town. "People in Darien appreciate good restaurants and for so long we didn't have a choice and now we do."
Restaurant Week began in 1992 as a lunch-only promotion showcasing gourmet restaurants in New York City during the Democratic National Convention. Diners could find bargain lunches at some of the best places for only $19.92.
Since then, it has grown to almost national holiday status in large cities such as Boston, Houston and Washington, D.C. as a way to offer diners lower prices at restaurants.
In Connecticut, most towns hold their week during the annual Connecticut Restaurant Week, which takes place in October. Many cities and towns in the area have experimented with holding it during different times of the year. Stamford holds its Restaurant Week during the summer or winter depending on the year and Norwalk holds its Restaurant Week during early October. Westport held its event in August.
"It's amazing how restaurant weeks have caught on throughout our area," said Darien Restaurant Spokesman Linda Kavanagh. "It's a testament to the amount and caliber of restaurants that have worked their way into our towns over the years."
She added that South Norwalk kicked off their event a few years ago with just a handful of places, and now 15 restaurants participate. Westport had 20 restaurants right out of the gate during its first year.
Darien attempted its first one last year but didn't have the right momentum, she said. Since then, Darien hired her as a publicist and now they have almost 20 participants.
"While Restaurant Week is indeed a promotional tool and an attention-getter, it's not about the restaurants raking in the dough all week," she said. "It's about creating relationships with old and new customers, enticing diners to venture out during an otherwise historically slow period, and having an opportunity to offer customers something special."