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Almost every big event in Philadelphia has been canceled since the pandemic hit March, from Made in America to the Mummers Parade to the Broad Street Run. But the Center City District is pressing on with Fall Restaurant Week, which is set for September 13 to 25.
The twice-annual promotion, where diners can order a three-course meal from a limited menu for a fixed price, usually brings out more than 150,000 people.
This year, obviously, will be different. Participation among restaurants has dropped by a third — instead of the usual 120+ spots joining in, this year’s list has just 80, as proprietors struggle with reinventing their business to follow coronavirus safety guidelines.
Some restaurateurs are looking forward to it as a beacon of normalcy.
“Restaurant Week signals the return of so many of our local regulars who may have been away for the summer,” said Ellen Yin, co-owner of High Street Hospitality, which runs Fork in Old City and a.kitchen in Rittenhouse. “This year might be a little different, but we are looking forward to seeing them — masked of course.”
Restaurant owners’ desire to go forward despite the pandemic is exactly why it’s happening, according to CCD president Paul Levy.
“The decision to have the event was made in July after speaking with restaurants about their interest and the responses were greatly in favor of having Restaurant Week,” Levy told Billy Penn.
The promotion originated in 2003 as a way to bolster businesses’ bottom line and generate tax revenue during typically slow periods. The $35 menus drive up traffic for lunch and dinner, and the higher-than-usual volume allows restaurants to make a profit despite the fixed price.
On the other side, many industry workers have long regarded Restaurant Week with trepidation.
In normal years, social media is replete with complaints about server maltreatment and lower-than-usual tips during the promotion, which brings out people who might not usually go to restaurants. This time, workers also find themselves in the precarious position of having to spend hours weaving through tables where masks are not being worn.
Some bartenders, restaurant owners and industry advocates have been critical on social media about plans to move ahead with the event.
“Restaurant week won’t save our industries,” a local group called the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health posted on Twitter, adding, “haphazardly reopening indoor dining won’t either.”
Although the event begins a few days after the city allows indoor dining to restart for the first time since March, the Health Department did not consult with the Center City District on dates — or even give advance notice, per CCD president Levy.
“It is up to each restaurant to determine whether they want to open indoors and have the space and layout to do so safely,” Levy said. “The CCD is strongly recommending to all participating restaurants that Restaurant Week benefits only apply to outdoor dining and takeout.”
Levy didn’t have an estimate as to how many participating restaurants would offer indoor dining. Yin, of High Street Hospitality, said there will only be one indoor table at Fork, and two tables at a.kitchen
It’s a way “to dip our toe in the waters and then grow from there,” she said. “At a minimum a few indoor tables will allow us a rain plan.” Takeout options will also be available.
Tria, which operates three Center City locations, is one of the Philly restaurant groups that has no plans to open its dining rooms on Sept. 8 because of restrictions that come along with the lifting of the ban.
“The 25% capacity isn’t worth jumping at,” owner Jon Myerow said. “We have one restaurant where we’d be able to serve 6 guests. That’s not a restaurant — that’s a dinner party.”
Tria doesn’t usually participate in Restaurant Week anyway, Myerow noted.
It’s always an opt-in experience for Center City’s 500-some restaurants, CCD president Levy emphasized. Places that don’t feel comfortable or see the economic benefit aren’t being strong-armed in any way, he said.
“We want the experience to be comfortable and enjoyable for customers and we want it to be safe for workers while keeping hospitality workers employed and businesses open,” Levy said.
“Philadelphia has had more than two months of successful experience with safe outdoor dining and recent successes with street closures and we want to build on that success.”