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Exploring the issue of holiday prix fixe menus

Rabbit on the menu at Canoe, credit: Jenny Turknett

Rabbit on the menu at Canoe, credit: Jenny Turknett

What do you think about prix fixe menus (fixed price, limited selections) offered by restaurants on holidays?

Recently for Best of the Big A, readers were asked to nominate restaurants for the best Valentine’s Day dining spot. Some readers chose to use the nomination space to talk about prix fixe menus instead. Here are some of the comments that were posted:

Kristen: Excitedly booked at table at La Grotta for Monday night, only to find out they are serving the prix fixe menu and nothing else. We’ve cancelled, and will stay in.

Jabba the Butt: The wife and I kind of like the prix fixe menu… We get to try weird things… that we probably wouldn’t order on a regular day–and, to tell you the truth, probably wouldn’t order again, but that’s the nature of the prix fixe.

Jeff: …BOYCOTT ANY RESTAURANT that tries to force you to use a prix fixe menu, whether it’s Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve or any other time. We as customers have to exercise our rights for CHOICE and VARIETY and NOT pay over-inflated prices for fewer options. That is idiotic and quite frankly a rip-off. I am offended when a restaurant suddenly thinks that I want to do “prix fixe” just because it happens to be a holiday… $40 or $50 a plate and YOU tell me my options for dinner?…

At the same time I read these comments, I had an inbox full of emailed press releases announcing special Valentine’s Day prix fixe menus. I wondered how others felt about prix fixe menus. Is it nice to have to have upscale choices or frustrating that your favorite restaurant isn’t serving what you usually order? To get another perspective, I surveyed some friends to get their thoughts and received mixed responses:

Julie: I love it. It makes us try new different things. Also, sometimes my brain is so fried that its nice not to think/choose items.

Paige: Seems like many restaurants do it only for the holidays, then only include standard, fairly boring choices. Sometimes it is like going to a wedding – would you like the steak or chicken?

Liz: I think it depends on the restaurant. I know they are doing it especially on holidays because they’re extra busy and it makes things easier for them. If I can see the menu ahead of time, fine, but I’m not a fan of restaurants that don’t normally do prix fixe and then I can’t have what I really want.

So it seems that there are several issues. First is choice: are the menus offering enough of a choice in their prix fixe menus? Second: is the menu reflective of the restaurant’s typical pricing and menu?

I spoke with Bocado co-owner Brian Lewis about the decision to serve their regular menu for Valentine’s Day. He says that before owning a restaurant, when going out for special occasions, he found that many restaurants with holiday prix fixe menus failed to stay true to their character both in terms of menu selection and price point. Because Bocado is designed to be approachable from menu and price perspective, they wanted to “offer that same opportunity on special occasions.” Bocado will run a special on Valentine’s Day (in addition to its regular menu) but it is in keeping with the typical menu and pricing. The lobster roll paired with a cup of tomato bisque ($20), which is typically serve d only on Saturday evenings, will be available on Valentine’s Day.

Canoe is taking a different approach to holiday dining. They are offering a special menu on Monday the 14th only — not the entire weekend. It is not a prix fixe menu but contains à la carte choices. Chef Carvel Gould says that they do not offer a prix fixe menu with a set number of courses on holidays because not everyone will want three or four courses. She also indicates that many prix fixe menus contain high and low-value items. Depending on what you order, you may or may not receive good value for your meal.

Canoe’s Valentine menu, however, will not be their typical menu. Chef Gould says they have learned that people want choices that are fancier, sexier, and those which make it feel like a special event. While the choices will remain in keeping with the restaurant’s style, items such as foie gras, oysters, rack of lamb, and pheasant may be on the Valentine à la carte menu.

I also spoke with Michael Erikson, Marketing Director for Fifth Group Restaurants. Three of the company’s restaurants (Ecco, South City Kitchen, and La Tavola) will offer prix fixe menus this Valentine’s Day. The restaurants, however, will incorporate some of their traditional menu items on their prix fixe menus. I was given three reasons to explain why the group elected to implement prix fixe menus for Valentine’s Day:

·         Doing a prix fixe menu gives us the flexibility to mix up the menu to accommodate our guests who want to enjoy our classic, signature dishes while also satisfying the guests who have expressed the desire to experience special items on a special night.

·         The chefs enjoy developing and preparing these special dishes (using unique or higher end items that can’t be offered on a regular basis) and the servers get excited about experiencing these new items as well as offering them to our guests.

·         Prix fixe menus allow us to better manage the flow of the restaurant on what is traditional a very busy night—this results in a more relaxed, smoother dining experience for the guests and the staff.

In exploring the topic of prix fixe menus, I am reminded of a humorous piece Richard Blais wrote last year about planning a prix fixe menu (this one for New Year’s Eve). It gives an interesting look at these menus from a chef’s perspective.

What are your thoughts? Do you enjoy prix fixe menus or avoid them?

Jenny-Turknett-Tagline–by Jenny Turknett, Food & More blog

– Jenny Turknett writes about Southern and Neighborhood Fare for the AJC Dining Team. She also publishes her own blog, Going Low Carb.

24 comments Add your comment

Lee Weber

February 10th, 2011
1:16 pm

Very interesting and topical piece. I like ‘em. Think they give the chef a chance to show off and for V-Day puts the focus on the date, not the food…(which is always a good choice for guys.)

Jim

February 10th, 2011
1:19 pm

Anybody who balks at a prix fixe menu SHOULD stay home – or perhaps they should always eat at McDonald’s.

They have no sense of adventure or sophistication nor any appreciation of the difficulty of running a restaurant kitchen.

Wendy

February 10th, 2011
1:23 pm

Rosebud is also offering an a la carte menu as well with holiday specials vs a prix fixe. I bet Chef Ron would have a couple things to say about prix fixe menus!

SARAH FREEMAN

February 10th, 2011
1:25 pm

I enjoyed seeing the reader’s comments. At The Georgia Club, we offer a prix fixe menu every Saturday night IN ADDITION TO our regular a la carte menu. We do this so people can explore the creative culinary talents of our chefs and enjoy some paired wines that they normally might not try on their own. Our guests have responded very well to it and they like the option of eating outside the box.

OneFinSHY

February 10th, 2011
1:56 pm

Vive la difference! Both sides of the argument have merit. Personally, I tend to agree that it’s rather dull and unimaginative to order the same thing at the same place all the time.

Sarah

February 10th, 2011
2:04 pm

We had intended to try a new restaurant that we’d been wanting to try for a while, only to find out they were only doing a prix fix menu instead of their regular menu. Plus, they wanted $55 for 3 courses, which is more than I’m likely to eat anyway. We decided to go on a different night. Didn’t want to be charged for more food than we want, off a menu that didn’t have all the amazing options as the normal menu. If the chef wants to show off special items, add them. Don’t subtract others. If this is too much burden on the kitchen, then don’t do it .

[...] Exploring the issue of holiday prix fixe menus [...]

Rodney

February 10th, 2011
2:14 pm

I don’t mind it at all, but I always go into it with the mindset that I might have to settle for something I don’t really want, or that I may not get something I really want.

With a p/f, your’e at the mercy of the chef/kitchen as to what you’ll have, within a few dishes for each course, and sometimes that can be a let down. But by and large p/f menus are cheaper overall – and most times I’m plenty satisfied when I leave.

I DO think there should be a minimum three choices per course – I’ve experienced some where you had a choice of two – this, or that. NOT COOL.

Kristen

February 10th, 2011
3:03 pm

Jim @ 1:19 – You’re an idiot. I once spent $800 at Le Bernadin in NYC, so I think I know a little something about “adventure” and “sophistication”. When and if I go out to dinner on a holiday, I’m going to choose a place with a stellar reputation, and I don’t want to be locked in to three courses consisting of a wilted salad, steak or chicken, and a chocolate dessert. I certainly appreciate the difficulty of running a kitchen, but if a restaurant is worth its salt, it can handle a holiday crowd (e.g. Chef Gould and Canoe). If a place wants to take the easy way out by foregoing their regular menu items and sticking to the items I described above, I’ve no desire to eat there (La Grotta – I’m talkin’ to you).

FoodFan

February 10th, 2011
3:30 pm

I can’t stand a pre-fixe menu. Speaking to the mix of high and low-$ dishes – or interesting specials that a chef wants to showcase – my experiences have been that often times the more-expensive items or specials are sold out by the time I eat, or the food that is on a pre-fixe is more mainstream/not indicative of what the restaurant serves. I will never go to a restaurant for the first time if all I can eat off of is a pre-fixe menu (of course, somewhere like French Laundry, etc. is different).

Rodney, your mindset on settling for something you don’t want is wrong – YOU are the customer. You are paying the $$$ and making the choice to dine in the restaurant. Yes, the overall meal may be cheaper, but add it up next time. Often times it seems like by the time everything is added up it comes out to like getting a free desset. Choose what you want to eat (and, say, split a dessert) vs eating the “free” creme brulee that you know what it’s going to taste like. Would you ever go to a restaurant that only had three choices for App/Entree/Dessert?

Dining out is a luxury. Enjoy yourself. Eat what you want, not what you’re told.

PJ

February 10th, 2011
3:31 pm

I find there is a major difference between a holiday prix fixe menu & a prix fixe chef’s tasting menu. The former is often (often, not always) limited to the most accessible items on a restaurant’s menu, not those that show off a chef or offer anything new & different. The later holds the option to try smaller servings of the chef’s best, try new things, see what a chef can offer in terms of both enriching old standards and inventing new bites. As I view holiday prix fixe menus, they are often simple, accessible & designed to get bottoms in seats. Sure, this strategy pays off in the short term, but how many of those diners will return if they aren’t wowed by the food?

Rodney

February 10th, 2011
3:42 pm

@FoodFan – I agree with you 100%. I was only saying that I have on occasion found myself on the horns of a dilemma when faced with a p/f menu, and I’ve come out of it relatively unscathed. ;)

My comments weren’t to support folks actively seeking them out – just that you may run up on a p/f menu sometimes. And they won’t bite.

FoodFan

February 10th, 2011
3:56 pm

2nd PJ there on the return. I can remember a terrible NYE experience I had at Rathbuns. After seating us an hour after our reservation time, we had a fixed menu that had about 12 items for app/entree/dessert so it was a larger pre-fixe menu, more so like their regular menu. Of coure, though, they were out of all the big-tickets items (lobster, oysters, filet, etc.) so I was relegated to my 2nd and 3rd choices. An apology from the host – while nice – really didn’t do anything (no drinks, nothing sent our way for our inconvenience, had paid for everything at the bar while we waited an hour). But I was so sour on the experience I didn’t go back for 2 years. Finally went back on a regular night, really enjoyed my meal and all but it was an experience I haven’t forgetten.

I know that for years I wouldn’t reccomend the place to anyone when asked for a nice dinner reservation. They lost out on a lot of my dining $’s and my friends’ because of it. Now, there were issues that were restaurant-wide that I saw to be inexcusable (the extra wait with nothing sent our way, the host coming by & apologizing but doing nothing to actually fix the situation, no discount at the end of our meal, etc.) that I thought that a restaurant of that caliber should have addressed. But they probably thought of me as another “rookie” patron joining them for one night only (or at least treated me like that!) So yes, pre-fixe meals can end up costing them more than just a cover for the night.

[...] the original post: Exploring the issue of holiday prix fixe menus | Food and More … Uncategorized ajc, atlanta, fixe-menus, fixed-price, kessler, kessler-discuss, [...]

Typical Redneck

February 10th, 2011
4:21 pm

Huddle House has a sweet prix fixe menu for Valentine’s Day.

HotlantaHobo

February 10th, 2011
6:49 pm

Actually I’d like to see more French-style “formules” or table d’hote menus offered where a large choice of appetizers and desserts are included and the main course determines the price, less than a la carte. These are the norm in France but a regular a la carte menu is usually available also. The portions are the correct size for a decent meal, but not gross and needing a doggie bag. I suspect they aren’t offered here much as they mean less revenue for the operator and many diners here aren’t used to or too diet-conscious to eat a traditional three course meal.

What happens here is that instead of becoming a value, the prix-fixe menu becomes a way of increasing revenue and reducing choice, hence a lot of unhappy diners.

Ramona Clef

February 10th, 2011
9:32 pm

Interesting comments and the subject reminded me of a memorable dining experience in Montreal. L’Entrecote St. Jean is downtown and people say it has been there forever. It has a set menu every day, lunch and dinner. The same set menu. Vegetable soup, salad, steak frites, profiteroles. The vegetable soup changes seasonally, but everything else stays exactly the same. Every day, for more than thirty years. Good? Heck, yes, they’ve been practicing long enough. The wine list, however, is extensive. I loved this place, the idea was just so weird. Now that’s a prix fixe.

Bemused Observer

February 10th, 2011
10:48 pm

Stay classy, Jim. You might want to consider that being insulting is NOT being persuasive. I don’t have a problem with prix fixe menus, IF they are used to showcase the chef. I have ended up trying things I know I wouldn’t have tried otherwise and almost without fail, I enjoyed them. But a prix fixe menu which was obviously designed to flip tables cost that restaurant my return business. As Food Fan noted, my $$$, my choice.

Lurker

February 11th, 2011
10:32 am

I love reading these blogs…there’s always one person (looking at you, Jim) that equates somebody not liking something to being unsophisticated. Heaven forbid somebody just want something they know they’ll enjoy.

Betsy

February 11th, 2011
11:51 am

We love the prixe fixe at Five and Ten in Athens. Very much the best bargain around. It’s $25 for 3 courses, but only available as an early bird special. For us, it has always showcased the most interesting of what is in season right then.

But, I agree on the boring V-Day menus. I’m not likely to go out for those.

Noah Tall

February 11th, 2011
12:43 pm

Restaurants will stop doing prix fixe menus on Valentines Day when they no longer can book up 2 weeks in advance when doing so. The chefs will follow the market like any other business. Prix Fixe gives restaurants a chance to maximize during peak times. When that no longer works for their guests and the bookings dwindle, they will adjust. The complainers probably only go out once or twice a year anyway, so the “boycott” is not threatening in the long run.

Edward

February 13th, 2011
11:05 am

I have an aversion to prix fixe offerings ever since I starved at one a couple of years ago. My partner and I were invited, by another couple, to a special holiday dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant. The prix fixe menu offered two choices each for the three courses (very traditional Italian: antipasti, premi, secondi) and every choice involved some shellfish, of which I am highly allergic. There was nothing I could eat other than the breadsticks. When the waiter was informed of this, we were told there was nothing that could be done about it, the prix fixe menu was all that was offered that evening. Our host couple apologized profusely, they had no idea beforehand that there would be such a problem. Needless to say, I’ve not been back to that restaurant even on non-holiday evenings.

culinary artist

February 13th, 2011
6:30 pm

What diners really don’t understand about the pre-fixe menu on holidays is the volume of reservations increase during these times without access to more staff. So what the pre-fixe does is pair the items down to the most popular choices and allows the kitchen to operate under normal staffing levels. For example V-Day is on a Monday this year so we have 4 days of celebration in a row. An increase of business by 25% can add 40% of labor and 80% of that will be overtime. So basically the revenue generated is lost in higher payroll and payroll taxes. For the number of covers and small amounts of profit generated by offering the entire menu, it doesn’t make much financial sense to do otherwise. This is not all restaurants, but fits the majority.

dean

February 15th, 2011
8:00 am

Only offering a Prix Fixe is NOT cool. I also think a lot of restaurants that do offer the fixed menu that don’t normally offer a fixed menu do it for one reason and one reason only. They know they will be very busy, and its really easy to make a whole lot of a handful of things, rather than have to accommodate random orders all night.