Pandemic conditions have inspired a massive Restaurant Week that gets back to its roots—and this year, it's to-go.
By Tim Zagat as told to Chris Mohney
Along with his wife Nina Zagat, Tim Zagat co-founded the Zagat Survey of New York City Restaurants in 1979. The project ultimately expanded beyond restaurants and New York to cover hundreds of destinations and subjects in print and digital. He also was among the originators of New York Restaurant Week, where restaurants offer bargain meals to introduce themselves to prospective customers and fill tables during slower periods. There are now Restaurant Weeks in cities all over the world. For 2021, New York City Restaurant Week is adapting to pandemic restrictions by offering $20.21 delivery and takeout meals from over 500 restaurants. Mastercard, as sponsor, is providing a $10 rebate to any cardholder purchase above $20 through the program—i.e. on Mastercard orders, a Restaurant Week meal will cost $10.21. This 2021 Restaurant Week will run January 25-31, with an optional second week.
Restaurant Week started back in 1992. The renowned restaurateur, Joe Baum, and I were trying to find a way to make dining more accessible as part of a four-day promotion connected with the Democratic National Convention in New York that year. The restaurant industry was having tough times at that point. Our thought was, look, you’ve got 15,000 reporters coming in to report on a Clinton convention where the results are foreordained. Let’s take advantage of the fact that all these reporters are here, and let’s show them what New York can do by way of great food. Let’s show them what we can do for $19.92.
We asked the best New York restaurants at the time to participate. About 60 or 70 joined in. We looked at it, I think correctly, as a loss leader. Nobody was making money, but the idea was to get the world’s attention on New York as the world capital of dining. That was worth losing money for one week. Surprise, the restaurants ended up doing well financially.
It was more successful than we ever dreamed. The reason was New Yorkers heard about it, and places like Le Cirque and Bouley were getting 5,000 calls a day for this meal. It just blew out the systems across the board. All the restaurants suddenly couldn’t handle the business. It became a front-page story—not only in New York, but elsewhere. Bouley stayed open from nine in the morning until midnight. Many of the participating restaurants simply ran out of food.
Over the years, Restaurant Week launched in city after city around the world. New York continued to have Restaurant Week in good times and bad. When things were bad after 9/11, the restaurants did it for a whole month, focusing on the areas of the city that needed help. It really brought people back into the seats in the restaurants.
The New York Restaurant Week program has expanded in the number of participating restaurants, and prices have increased slightly to reflect inflation. Last year, it was a $26 lunch and a $42 dinner. Over time, we rolled Restaurant Week into New York City & Company, NYC’s convention and visitors bureau and marketing arm.
Now a large number of restaurants are closed, other than for takeout and delivery. This is an opportunity to focus on what they can do in this new world and bridge the dark months of winter. Restaurants can show that they’re still alive and open, and they can use Restaurant Week as an attempt to shock the public as we did in 1992—to really demonstrate what they can do with takeout, or or experiment with it in the case of restaurants that haven’t done takeout before.
More than 500 restaurants have signed up—200 more than the prior record—which also includes just about every major restaurant still open for business. The participants intend to shake up the public and media to realize—wow, here are José Andrés, Daniel Boulud, and Danny Meyer doing whole meals for $20.21. Many of the top-name restaurants, to the extent that they have any ability to do takeout or delivery, are doing so. Exceeding the value of $20.21 is key to the effort.
It’s wonderful that we have over 500 restaurants involved, but the name of the game is to get the public to understand—and the restaurants themselves to understand—the potential for takeout and delivery. A couple of the delivery platforms are saying they will cut their fees for Restaurant Week. Even after the pandemic ends, this could be a meaningful revenue stream for a lot of restaurants, especially if they use the offering to show off their quality and value.
Of course, some of them said they couldn’t do it in these times. Eric Ripert said, “I’d love to do it, but I’ve gotten my people jobs elsewhere to keep them fed.”
I spoke to Stephen Starr and Keith McNally, both of whom have a lot of wonderful restaurants that nobody thought of for takeout before. I told them, “You have a choice—stay closed until the pandemic is brought under control, or try something new.” They brought restaurants such as Minetta Tavern, Pastis, and Upland into the program. I talked to Joe Bastianich, Andrew Carmellini, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. All of them bought into the idea. As for New York City & Company—in which I’ve been involved for many years—I said, “Look, given where we are in the industry right now, the only thing we can do is takeout and delivery. Let’s do it in a way that is constructive, that may give a revenue stream to people that are desperately in need.”
The whole thing, from my perspective, is to focus on this as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event from restaurants that everybody knows—including restaurants you never would have dreamed would do anything like this. That’s part of the excitement. I think that these chefs may find that takeout is a new revenue stream, especially after the pandemic, when the industry has to respond to customers who have been shuffled around and are no longer around the corner in Midtown. So the question is, how does the industry respond to people that have been shuffled away?
Restaurants need to execute on new ideas in this new era. However, life is always a matter of execution. That’s the hard part. I don’t want to imply that I know all the answers, because I don’t think anybody does. But the big picture is that we have a completely changed environment. When restaurants reopen in June or whenever things are back, people are not necessarily going to be where they were. The restaurant industry in New York City is going to have to figure out that there are more people working in the suburbs and less in Manhattan. People are more likely to come to the office one day a week rather than five. If that happens—and I think it’s likely to happen—there’s going to be a much greater need for restaurant food where the customers are. There’s going to be a huge reshuffling of the deck.
This crisis will force restaurateurs to rethink what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. There are going to be a lot of people struggling to rethink their business models. New York City & Company is simply trying to help the industry survive and prosper, while adapting to the changed environment and hopefully demonstrating what they’ve always been about—hospitality and generosity.
As someone who has been involved in representing restaurant customers for decades, I hope the Restaurant Week to Go program will entice all New Yorkers who care about their restaurants to order out and take advantage of this amazing $20.21 meal deal.