We have similar restaurant habits: harried, hurried and maybe even a little apprehensive. We don't have the time or the brain space to think about what we're eating. We just eat and move on the next task. It's so much easier for us to stay in that TV-tray-dinner mindset where all our food has a consistent shape, color and texture.
Caution be damned, I say. Why not take a risk with our dining habits for a change and explore some of our local independent restaurants for a lark during Cincinnati's own Restaurant Week? Think of it as a mini vacation for your mouth.
The event, courtesy of the Greater Cincinnati Independents, provides an affordable excursion for your palate during the second annual Greater Cincinnati Restaurant Week, which runs from Monday through March 9. During the week more than 25 locally owned restaurants will offer a three-course prix-fixe dinner menu for $25.08.
Greater Cincinnati Independents is a collaborative organization of locally owned restaurants with a goal of raising awareness of locally owned dining options. Vice President Drew Hester says the organization formed two years ago with 12 members as a part of the national group Dine Originals America. It broke with the national organization last year and renamed itself Greater Cincinnati Independents with a current roster of more than 30 restaurants.
The organization promotes locally owned and operated independent restaurants and provides collaborative services and benefits for its members.
Shannon Purkiss, a member and marketing director of the Tavern Restaurant Group, says the only stipulation for membership is that the business is a Cincinnati start-up.
"It's a way to pull marketing dollars for local restaurants that can't compete dollar for dollar with the big chains," she says.
The concept of Restaurant Week, which now takes place in many cities across the country, began in New York City after Sept. 11 to help the city's struggling economy. Harry Stephens, owner of Bella Luna and a member of the local organization, was instrumental in bringing the idea home. Two years ago while celebrating his daughter's 21st birthday at 21 in New York, Stephens happened upon Restaurant Week in full swing.
"It's one of those things where in an economy where the independent restaurateur is fighting for their life every day, this helps point out to people there are some really great places to go," Stephens says.
He had his work cut out for him convincing other members it was a good idea because the promotional dinner price falls below many of the members' normal menu prices, and it's hard to make up lost ground if you're serving dishes with expensive ingredients like truffles. But the restaurants that participated last year were amazed at the popularity of the event. Liz Cook of Daveed's at 934 says, "Last year it was absolutely fantastic."
The event took place during Labor Day week, a traditional slow time for restaurants, so Liz and Chef David Cook usually go away that time of year. "We were on the phone every night checking in," she recalls. "It was Saturday night every night."
This year their Restaurant Week menu will include scallops, a green salad and fish or duck (wine pairings $35.08).
Other participants from last year include mesh, which will offer a choice of Basil Bisque, Crab and Corn Bisque and a house salad for the first course; Pan Roasted Chicken Breast with potato gnocchi, Pan Roasted Scallops with lemon linguini or Grilled Beef Medallion with roasted garlic mashed potatoes for the second course; and Carrot Apple Cake or Chef Pam Sturkey's homemade ice cream for a third course. The Polo Grille, another veteran from last year, will have a crab cake appetizer, a baked goat cheese salad and a choice of cedar planked salmon or steak churrasco for an entrée.
"It's really about getting people in," Shannon Purkiss says. "Once they get in and see the menu and experience the restaurants and they see it really is affordable."
Liz Cook echoes this sentiment: "Trying to let people know how many independent restaurants Cincinnati has. You don't just have to visit these places for special occasions."
At Bell Luna, Stephens says, "On Friday night I had a table of six that had been to mesh the night before and were going to Daveed's on Saturday. They ate out four times that week. Last year they served 625 meals from the promotion that week. About 68 percent were first timers.
"On the one hand the high-end places draw in people they might not normally see. On the flip side guys like myself, people come from the other side of town to have dinner with us and now they see it isn't really that far. Independent restaurants offer an incredible variety of food. We're trying to get people to understand that you can go to a chain down the street and have the same kind of food you might cook at home, but why would you want to do that?"
The current list of Restaurant Week participants includes Andy's Mediterranean Grille, Behle Street Café, Bella Luna, Brown Dog Café, Chalk Food + Wine, Daveed's at 934, deSha's American Tavern & Grille, Greenup Café, Holy Grail Tavern & Grille, Hugo, Jag's Steak & Seafood, Jimmy D's Steakhouse, Kona Bistro, mesh, Mike & Jimmy's Chophouse Grille, Molly Malone's Irish Pub, Nicholson's, O'Bryon's Irish Pub, Polo Grille, Pompilios, Primavista, The Pub at Crestview Hills, The Pub at Rookwood Mews, Red, Universal Grille and Washington Platform. You can find the complete list and menus for many of the participating restaurants at www.gcindependents.com.
In an industry with a reputation for ego, it might not seem an easy task to get people we would normally think of as competitors to work together the way the members of Greater Cincinnati Independents do.
"The event gets restaurateurs to understand that even though we may serve the same type of food we're not really in competition with each other," Stephens says. "It's a marketing tool but it's gotten a bunch of us to talk to one another and help one and other and participate in projects that are good for the community."
GREATER CINCINNATI RESTAURANT WEEK runs Monday through March 9. For more information, go to www.gcindependents.com.