Eating your way around Denver

This year’s Denver Restaurant Week brought in millions in revenue


Restaurants and diners alike benefit from a 10-day event that highlights culinary business across the metro area: From Feb. 22 to March 3, diners snagged deals on some of the best restaurants throughout the area as the Mile High City celebrated 15 years of Denver Restaurant Week this year.

Denver Restaurant Week offers multi-course options to diners throughout the Front Range, with options at $25, $35 and $45.

Although considered a staple now, Denver Restaurant Week started as a way for the city to prove itself after a reader poll in “Travel + Leisure” magazine placed Denver 24th out of the top 25 dining scenes. The poll was a blow to lovers of the culinary scene, so staff at Visit Denver, Eat Denver and other community organizations formed a partnership, said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, The Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Denver Restaurant Week originally sought to change that impression, to showcase what we had to offer as a city,” Scharf said. “Now, it’s become a real celebration of what we have today.”

In 2005, when the event first launched, 83 restaurants participated. This year, Denver Restaurant Week tripled in size with 251 restaurants in the metro area. Visit Denver did not have an official count, but it estimated that hundreds of thousands of meals were served, with an economic impact reaching into the millions.

Restaurant owners such as Gene Tang, owner and chef at 1515 Restaurant in Denver, a fine dining restaurant, said the event is an opportunity to bring new customers in the door.

“People have a perception of us being expensive. This is a good chance for them to try us out,” he said. “Restaurant week is great for, I think, the restaurants and the people of Denver — people get to try the restaurant, and we get exposed to more people.”

The first year was a bit of an experiment, said Beth Gruitch, co-owner of Crafted Concepts, which owns five restaurants including Bistro Vendome and Rioja. Both restaurants participated in the first Denver Restaurant Week. Customers didn’t know about it the first year, and Gruitch said she and her business partner were unsure how their special restaurant week menu would sell.

Back in 2005, “people were kind of into the chains,” she added. Restaurateurs in Denver were hopeful the event would bring in new customers.

Over the years, Gruitch said there has been a water-cooler effect with people talking about their experiences during Denver Restaurant Week. Each year, the event has grown, she said. Restaurant owners said they have seen repeat customers come in after the event.

“Word of mouth is so important, and we wanted to get people talking about dining out,” Scharf said. “If your locals do not believe your brand, visitors will not either.”

Jacqualine Bonanno from Bonanno Concepts said their flagship restauran Mizuna was the first restaurant to sign up for Denver Restaurant Week 15 years ago. She said that while restaurant week customers may not be the best target audience to convert into repeat diners, they do spread the word. Bonanno restaurants like Mizuna, a French restaurant, now use the strategy of bringing well-loved and simple foods to the table during restaurant week.

“We aim for the simplest of our fares—food that everyone loves—and we try to do it in abundance for a true value. Heaping bowls of fresh pasta, a grilled ribeye with garlic butter, fresh halibut,” Bonanno said. “Our experience is that the service needs to be brisk, and the food can’t be too fancy or complicated. If there’s a dish that needs to be explained, it’s the wrong dish for Restaurant Week.”

Miranda McFarlan, general manager at Tamayo, a Mexican restaurant on Larimer Street, said she has some customers that specifically come every year for Denver Restaurant Week. Other customers became regulars after visiting for the first time during the event.

At first, Denver Restaurant Week used the $52.80 model, which let diners have multiple courses from the participating location of their choice. Over the years, Visit Denver also added a summer event. More recently, the event has changed to the scaling price point. McFarlen said this model works well for restaurants.

It also allows more restaurants to participate in the event, said Josh Wolkon, owner of Secret Sauce Food and Beverage, which includes the Vesta, Ace Eat Serve, Steuben's restaurants.

Although $52.80 for a meal was a fun marketing concept, some of the more casual restaurants such as Ace Eat Serve and Steuben's didn’t have the menu options at that cost, Wolkon said. At the $25 level, Steuben's is able to participate by offering a three-course meal consisting clam chowder, a lobster roll and dessert. The lobster roll alone costs $28 at Steuben's.

Restaurant week helped to change the landscape in Denver’s restaurant scene, Wolkon said. Dessert is a hard sell for customers on a typical night, with only 25 to 30 percent of people buying it, Wolkon said. But during restaurant week it usually comes with the meal. His pastry chefs churn out a lot more product during restaurant week, he said, adding “It’s important, because that’s their last bite.”

The event also generates customers during a traditionally low period of the year. Wolkon’s restaurant Vesta, which offers a seasonally based menu with fresh ingredients, is usually sold out during restaurant week.

“It’s just a great way to boost energy for staff and the room,” he said.

McFarlen added that restaurant week is fun for people working in the industry as well. Every year, she is excited to see what special menu items the chefs at Tamayo come up with for the event.

It’s also a reminder of how many places there are to eat around the city, she said. “It’s a fun way to get out and remind yourself of all the restaurants that have been around.”


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