Thursday, August 4, 2011

Houston Restaurant Weeks: More than just food

You find a number of divergent opinions on Houston Restaurant Weeks. The hip position seems to be one of begrudging acceptance mixed with condescension. It's easy to pick out the event's weaknesses -- a gimmick to lure customers during a traditionally slow month for restaurants, getting them to eat high-margin meals. But, aside from the notably worthy purpose of supporting the Houston Food Bank, some restaurants and consumers miss the tremendous opportunity that this high-profile event presents.

From a food standpoint, the benefits are obvious. Chefs get to show off their ability to craft cohesive menus -- something that's too rare in Houston, even if only for three or four courses. A restaurant also gets the chance to showcase its food to parades of new customers with limited risk. The set menus are designed for easy success; they're short and sweet and ought to be easy for a professional kitchen to crank out consistently. HRW has the hallmark of a golden opportunity to expand the customer base of Houston restaurants for the long-term.

As a result, the hemming-and-hawing about HRW is head-scratching. Recent debates online have focused on whether HRW customers deserve the same level of service as those ordering off the regular menu or whether it's valid to base a Yelp review on a HRW visit. That's the wrong discussion. There is nothing to be gained in knocking an event that brings new customers in the door and, therefore, creates an opportunity for a restaurant to show its best.

A more valid criticism, however, might be that some Houston restaurants don't embrace the potential value of HRW. Plenty of keen observers have noted a few half-hearted menus. Other restaurants simply lack imagination. What is often missing are respect for HRW customers and, more frequently, smart beverage pairings. An important way to view HRW is that it showcases the whole restaurant, not just a chance to come in and eat a set menu at a value price. Wipe that feeling away -- a paying customer is a paying customer. What's more, this month provides a superb opportunity to educate new diners and turn them into regulars.

What better way to educate than with showing off how complete the restaurant experience can be? Houston has been full of craft beer and cocktails dinners in recent months, but only a handful of restaurants have bothered to devise beverage pairings with their HRW menus. This is a missed opportunity to showcase an imperative skill for restaurants and their staffs: to come up with wine, beer, and cocktail pairings that enhance and elevate their food. Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe have come up with menus where complementary beverages are an integral part, no surprise given the deft skill of sommelier Sean Beck in elevating food by finding the right drink to go with it. Mockingbird Bistro and the Glass Wall, along with too few others, also offer thoughtful pairings with their HRW offerings.

The bottom line, simply put, is this: Restaurants in Houston offer more than just food. They offer an experience, an escape from your own kitchen, and a chance to enjoy one of the most exciting restaurant scenes in the country. In the first tier of restaurant cities in the United States -- New York, San Francisco, Chicago -- part of the joy is that you bask in the escape of the full dining experience, of which food is only one (very important) part.

To maximize a customer's exposure, Houston establishments need to put their arms around HRW and give it a big bear hug. Ensuring service is spot-on and the talents of their beverage experts, in particular, would be a good start. Show off the menu you've put special thought and effort into and get customers to come back by making them feel at home and, maybe more importantly, help them carry on merrily with the right glass of wine or other drink in their hands.