Restaurant week gives Sonoma County restaurants a boost after slow January amid pandemic

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Rojo Bautista had to raise his voice to be heard in the hubbub of the lunch rush Tuesday afternoon at Warike Restobar in Santa Rosa.

“Last night was packed – we’re breaking our own records,” said Bautista, a bartender at the new restaurant on 4th Street, which specializes in Peruvian and Latin cuisine – and killer cocktails. “We expect to be very busy during restaurant week.”

A happy mix of events is giving area restaurants a welcome boost as the second anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic approaches, which has dealt one of its hardest economic blows to the local restaurant scene. and the hospitality industry at large.

The county’s 30-day ban on large indoor gatherings, issued Jan. 12, has kept customers away from restaurants en masse, restaurant owners say. But it expired on February 10, just in time for the weekend before Valentine’s Day, which this year fell on a Monday.

Restaurant owners are very hopeful that this momentum will be sustained and perhaps accelerated by the annual Sonoma County Restaurant Week, Feb. 21-27, an annual program planned and executed by the county’s Economic Development Board. Nearly 80 establishments are taking part in the promotion, a sort of boost and incentive for diners to get out and expand their horizons – to explore the region’s range of world-class epicurean opportunities, at prices that will not affect their budget.

Program participants range from high-end restaurants – including Valette, Spoonbar and Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen; and John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa – to cafes, breweries and bakeries. The chefs are preparing prix fixe or pre-set menus for lunch and dinner, ranging from $55 to $25, available only this week.

“It’s a set menu, so you pay $35, and we choose our most popular dishes,” Bautista told Warike Restobar.

The arrival of Restaurant Week – at a time of record inflation – is also a fluke for customers, said Claudia Vecchio, CEO of Sonoma Tourism.

“It’s nice that people can celebrate and enjoy the county’s incredible culinary expertise – at fairly affordable prices,” she said.

Asked Tuesday afternoon if he noticed an increase in traffic due to Restaurant Week, Eric Zahra replied: “We don’t know yet.”

Zahra is the general manager of Blue Ridge Kitchen in Sebastopol, which definitely had a busier than usual Monday. Whether that traffic was a result of restaurant week or whether Monday was a holiday for many people, Zahra couldn’t tell.

Of 110 dinners served Monday night, he recalled, about 10 people enjoyed the restaurant’s weekly prix fixe smoked tomato soup, wood-grilled mahi-mahi with grilled artichokes and panna cotta at lavender.

“It’s not a huge number,” he admitted, “but it’s probably 10 people who wouldn’t have come otherwise. So that definitely makes a difference.

Offering such dazzling fare at great prices is “definitely a compromise,” Zahra acknowledged. Yes, they earn less, per meal, in a business whose margins are already stretched.

On the other hand, Restaurant Week attracts diners who wouldn’t normally set foot there. “The hope is that they will have fun and come back to meet us regularly.”

Seven miles north and east, Forestville’s acclaimed Canneti Roadhouse Italiana is also taking part in Restaurant Week, though its chef and owner, the talkative Francesco Torre, isn’t usually a cut-price guy.

“We are not a coupon restaurant,” he said. When he opened the place almost a decade ago, he participated in different promotions. In the end, he says, “it felt like we were working for free, which we can’t do. It’s a company.

“It’s not Healdsburg, it’s not Sebastopol. We are here in Forestville. There is no traffic without an appointment. Someone comes in here, sits down, eats well, pays the price we have. If they bring a bottle of wine, they pay a corkage fee” — except on Corkless Wednesdays, or unless they’re the leader of the free world.

“I wouldn’t charge President Biden a corkage fee,” Torre added, “because he’s helped small businesses like us during the pandemic. He helped us a lot. »

Why participate in Restaurant Week, then? Why offer a $35 three-course dinner — highlighted by a crispy-skinned cockerel over fresh corkscrew pasta or a Tuscan shoulder of pork preserved in olive oil — that doesn’t pay off? a lot of money at the restaurant?

“I attend Restaurant Week for one reason only,” he replied. “It gives my staff decent tips in the winter.”

The increase in business from Valentine’s week to restaurant week, he said, provides his servers with extra tips that can help them through an otherwise tough time of year for the restaurant. hospitality industry.

After pondering the question for a few more moments, Torre discerned another benefit of Restaurant Week. If 2,000 people pass by his establishment, a small fraction who had never eaten there before, “they will see a new place,” he said.

Newcomers may notice the beautiful garden and patio. “It’s very romantic,” he noted, and complete with its own bar and grill.

“And they will want to come back.”

You can reach editor Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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