Six nights a week, Jardinière, a “California-style French” restaurant in San Francisco, offers $149 caviar and $110 tasting menu. On the seventh night, every Monday, it holds a $49 prix fixe dinner with a theme, such as “Australia Day” or “Summertime in Venice.”
White-tablecloth restaurants are venturing out of their comfort zone and introducing culinary theme nights to help draw customers on the slowest nights of the week. Rather than “Meatloaf Mondays” or “Taco Tuesdays,” these high-end theme events showcase guest chefs, hard-to-find wines, rare ingredients and seldom-prepared dishes, such as the sweet-and-sour sardines on Jardiniere’s Venice menu and its tropical Pavlova, an Australia Day dessert.
Event dinners have helped Jardinière ramp up to about 200 dinners on Mondays—on par with other weekday evenings. Despite Monday’s discounted price, the result is an overall revenue increase, says Greg Rowen, director of operations.
At Recette, a restaurant in New York’s West Village, tasting menus run from $75 to $150, and the monthly theme night has a test-kitchen feel. Chef and owner Jesse Schenker shuts down the regular dinner service at his American restaurant and takes reservations for “Mondays with Jesse,” where he and his staff try out new dishes or ingredients on about two dozen people. The cost is $125 a person.
Lori Eanes for the Wall Street JournalIowa apple pie with vanilla bean ice cream and walnuts at Jardiniere.
“When you cook for 25 people, [the meal] gets as experimental and off-the-wall as we want,” says Mr. Schenker, who that night doubles as a server to diners at the bar. Mr. Schenker started the offering last year. The payoff: Staff is happy, and the most popular dishes are added to the regular menu, he says.
For diners, it is a chance to mingle with other foodies. Sunjit Chawla, a regular at Recette who runs a real-estate business, uses the evening to talk shop with Mr. Schenker and other patrons. This spring, Mr. Chawla attended Recette’s Japanese-inspired dinner, featuring 27 tiny courses served on special tableware.
“I was there for five and a half hours,” says the 43-year-old. So far, he says, he hasn’t tasted anything he didn’t like at one of the dinners. He still remembers a pumpkin foam with foie gras broth that he had last year.
In the age of Twitter and food blogs, special dinners help restaurants get noticed on a regular basis, says Candy Argondizza, vice president of culinary and pastry arts at the International Culinary Center, a New York cooking school. “They need to do anything that keeps their name out there these days,” she says. Most theme nights won’t add directly to a restaurant’s bottom line but are a great marketing vehicle for times when business is slow, she says.
Restaurateurs often want to create an intimate feeling for their themed events. Some meals are served at communal tables, offering greater access to chefs and sommeliers. Henry Stimler, co-owner of Jezebel, an American kosher restaurant in New York’s Soho neighborhood, in September started offering a Shabbat-style Friday night dinner. Challah bread and other staples are served family style at the traditional Jewish meal, and tables are arranged together to encourage diners to get to converse with each other.
Specialty-dinner themes don’t always resonate. Last year, Jardinière offered a “Purge the Bird” meal on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Instead of featuring meat dishes, the menu focused on lighter vegetarian entrees like a mushroom pavé. Many guests took a pass, Mr. Rowen says. “Without anything hearty in it, people weren’t inclined to sign up.”
Even a small misfire can jeopardize a high-end restaurant’s image with a clientele expecting perfection every time, says Alex Susskind, associate professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y.
Restaurateurs are well aware of how quickly specialty nights can turn into a gimmick. Daniel Johnnes, wine director for the Dinex Group, which runs 14 restaurants including Daniel Boulud’s Daniel, says his staff vets wine brands carefully before one of the restaurant’s monthly wine dinners and declines those that are too widely known or available. “We want to do dinners that add another dimension to the restaurant,” he says. Specialty dinners at Daniel have run up to $10,000 per person, for food paired with decades-old Bordeaux vintages, and they will average about $500 per person for events this fall.
Theme dinners can risk hurting regular business, says Jezebel’s Mr. Stimler. He hopes to keep his Friday-night dinners under the radar so as not to overshadow other, more lucrative times of the week. “It’s a very serious thing to become known for only one night,” he says.
When they are done right, though, specialty evenings attract new customers, says Jenn Louis, chef and co-owner of Lincoln restaurant in Portland, Ore. Last month, she offered a prix fixe “ice cream dinner,” where each course was served with ice cream or sorbet from Salt & Straw, a nearby shop. Lemon sorbet was served with a chilled-cucumber-and-shrimp soup, for instance. “Now, their customers come to us. And our customers come to them,” she says.
Gary Whalen, 69, and his wife are regulars at Jardinière’s theme dinners. They don’t even bother to check the menu: “It’s sort of like going home,” he says. “You don’t ask your parents what they are going to serve, you’re just going to show up.”