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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Overcast
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Madison Restaurant Week reveals city's culinary scene
How can the festival better serve the local restaurant biz?
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With restaurants representing Japan, Mexico, Ireland, France, and the many Mediterranean cuisines, few major cuisines are left out.
With restaurants representing Japan, Mexico, Ireland, France, and the many Mediterranean cuisines, few major cuisines are left out.

If you're looking to dine out this week, you could be in for a culinary windfall of sorts. The second annual incarnation of Madison Restaurant Week runs from January 27 to February 1, and if your favorite restaurant happens to be on the list, you'll be able to indulge without the financial guilt.

The 2008 version features 21 restaurants -- the same number as last year --offering a $25 prix fixe dinner menu. New this year is the inclusion of lunch at a select number of those restaurants, for an even more manageable $15 flat rate.

This year's lineup covers a geographic range from Columbus (James Street Dining Company) to Fitchburg (Casa de Lara, The Continental, and Quivey's Grove). The heart of Madison is represented by ten eateries in the immediate vicinity of the Capitol Square.

The distance from edge to edge of the Madison Restaurant Week map paints an impressive picture. Indeed, the offerings are diverse; fewer than half of the participants are offering a steak dish, and entrees like marlin, roasted fennel, carne asada and escolar (an unusual variety of mackerel) keep things interesting.

Upon closer inspection, however, the scope of the Restaurant Week lineup becomes spottier and less encompassing.

Take a look at the list of participating restaurants. You'll struggle to find more than one establishment from the east side of Madison. The new Erin's Snug Irish Pub is nearly in Sun Prairie, and other than Erin's, Osteria Papavero is as far east as you can get. The three miles or so between The Dardanelles and Casa de Lara are empty.

With restaurants representing Japan, Mexico, Ireland, France, and the many Mediterranean cuisines, few major cuisines are left out. But does this represent the Madison restaurant scene? With Shinji Muramoto's empire set to expand, Japanese cuisine appears on the rise; yet Takumi and Edo are absent. Much has been written about the steady increase in Mexican options in Madison, and yet only Casa de Lara makes the cut.

The organizers of Madison Restaurant Week have a great opportunity on their hands. They could, with little effort, fill the sails of those restaurants lacking the budget or wherewithal to advertise efficiently. Flat Top Grill, Takumi, Taqueria El Pastor, Cloud 9 Grille, Atlantis Taverna, Inka Heritage, and many more, could likely handle the increased traffic.

Moreover, the influx of new customers might be just enough to keep a struggling restaurant in business. A fate similar to that suffered by Fyfe's Corner Bistro might be avoided if the Restaurant Week spotlight shone on some of the aforementioned sites. With so many eateries in Madison, turnover is a known danger.

The question is whether Madison Restaurant Week provides the kind of shot-in-the-arm that one might expect. Placing Madison's event side-by-side with its model, the San Diego Restaurant Week, we see that the per-capita opportunities in Madison pale in comparison. There is a participating restaurant for every 19,000 San Diego metro diners; in Madison, over 28,000 residents are competing for those tables.

Four years in, San Diego has added a second event week per year. Even with prices between $30-40 per person, over 200,000 San Diego residents participated in the 2007 event. With no growth apparent from 2007 to 2008, one has to ask whether Madison's Restaurant Week offers a similar financial gain for the restaurateur.

The old adage is that Madison has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the U.S., and having a Restaurant Week is undoubtedly a boon for the foodie, the critic, the gourmand and the sight-seer. Hopefully, the organizers will continue to take steps to make sure that, in the long term, it is just as much a boon for the entire Madison restaurant industry.

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