Restaurant week and other edible attractions

Our view: Tourists love to eat

Baltimore is right to use our culinary attractions as a lure

August 02, 2010

If you cook it, they will come. So says Tim Zagat, a man who knows something about food and tourism. We think he's on to something, and that Baltimore can benefit from his wisdom.

Mr. Zagat visited Baltimore last week, just ahead of the kickoff of the city's summer Restaurant Week , to ballyhoo his latest guide to Baltimore and Washington restaurants, which uses the collective opinions of consumers to rank area restaurants.

The man who helped start the first restaurant week, in New York in 1992, and who serves on New York state's tourism board, says the concept of offering special, low-cost meals in fine restaurants is a proven way to stir up interest in your town. The initial restaurant week, offering meals for $19.92 in fine restaurants, was a ploy to entice some of the 15,000 journalists then in New York covering the Democratic National Convention to write about the restaurants. The reporters came, and so did crowds of what are now called culinary tourists.

Restaurant Week has since spread to some 10 cities and is held twice a year, once in the winter and once in the summer. Baltimore Restaurant Week runs Aug. 13-22, with participating restaurants offering a three-course lunch for $20.10 or a three-course dinner for $35.10.

Two groups of new customers in particular, young people and retirees, flock to restaurants during the promotion, Mr. Zagat said. For the young, who often are nervous about visiting upscale restaurants because they may feel they can't afford them, the fixed price acts as a fiscal insurance policy. Retired diners tend to treat Restaurant Week meals as occasions for a celebration. They invite friends, order wine (which costs extra), and turn a meal into a party.

Initially, some restaurant owners were concerned that offering even a limited number of low-price meals — usually consisting of three courses — would be a money-losing proposition. But according to Mr. Zagat, that fear faded when the Restaurant Week clientele began to stray from the prescribed menu and order extras like wine and special desserts and entrees. Moreover, getting customers in the door, even those buying bargain meals, builds loyalty.

Cities are learning that they can lure tourists by touting local restaurants. Shortly after the latest Zagat ranking went public, Frederick's tourism council sent out a press release trumpeting the fact that two of its restaurants, Volt and The Tasting Room, scored well. Volt was ranked second (behind Baltimore's Charleston) in the top food category, and The Tasting Room came in sixth.

Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism agency, said when he pitches the city's delights to meeting planners and travel writers in New York, Chicago and Washington, he mentions two themes: Baltimore's culinary and cultural appeal. He has also taken some of the city's local restaurant chefs, such as John Shields, Cindy Wolf, Spike Gjerde and Timothy Dean, on the road to cook dishes of the city's new farm-to-table cuisine as a way to lure visitors to Baltimore.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has also become a culinary apostle, speading the word of the city's delights to the hinterlands. Earlier this summer, during a trip to Oklahoma City, she spoke to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, outlining what will occur when the group convenes in Baltimore next summer. Many of the questions from the fellow mayors concerned food.

Baltimore is not New York, where the average restaurant meal costs about 15 percent more. In Manhattan, the hotels fill up during Restaurant Week. Here, the week is popular but draws most of its customers from within driving distance.

But Mr. Zagat, who publishes restaurant guides for more than 45 cities in the United States, says this town has a lot to offer visiting eaters. "Every city has restaurants that speak from its heart," Mr. Zagat said. "Baltimore has many."

We agree and hope that Baltimore's growing reputation as a culinary capital will in the future draw many visitors from both near and far — and not just two weeks out of the year.

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