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After 20 Years, Center City Restaurant Week Must Seriously Shake It Up

Meal deals are cool, but a greater shift to equity and access is even better

An evening outdoor dining area with a crowd of people under tents.
Fringe Bar at FringeArts, one of the participating locations during Center City Restaurant Week.
Fringe Bar.
Ernest Owens is the Editor of Eater Philly, and the food expert to go to when you’re out of options.

During this season’s iteration of Center City Restaurant Week, I only participated two times — first at the new Fringe Bar (140 N Christopher Columbus Blvd) and second at Restaurant Aleksandar (126 S. 19th Street). Both experiences were great, as my friends and I appreciated the replacement to Le Peg at FringeArts and the experimental European cuisine that has transformed Rittenhouse Square. Outside of those two spots, I just wasn’t as impressed with Restaurant Week as much anymore — a sense of fatigue with it has fallen upon me.

Now in its 20th year, it’s become clear that Center City Restaurant Week is a redundant script: Prix-fixe dinner and lunch deals for roughly two weeks at mostly the same locations twice a year. There’s always a shimmery selection of new restaurants that participate, but the hype doesn’t aways represent them in the best light (such as hosting large noisy crowds of first-time diners in what is typically chill spaces, overbooked reservations that bled into longer wait times). But beyond the technical aspects of why this notable week for restaurants have run its course — there’s a larger sociopolitical implication for why change is necessary.

I’ve been participating in Center City Restaurant Week since I’ve arrived in Philly in 2010. Back then, I was a college freshman attending Penn who was looking to pay for a fine dining experience for less. It was the most affordable date night for two, the best dinner party for whoever had a birthday around that time. As I got older, I began to hear stories of popular restaurants that didn’t participate because they didn’t feel it was profitable for them. As the event grew in popularity, the portion sizes at some locations got smaller as several hot spots left (farewell to Fogo de Chão’s awesome buffet).

Since the pandemic, society has evolved and so should Center City Restaurant Week. What would it look like if Restaurant Week was only focused on restaurants that were new, woman-owned, and/or of color-owned? Rather than having culinary juggernauts from the same predominately white male-owned restaurants compete against newer spots and/or diverse restaurants who often face socioeconomic disparity — Center City District has an opportunity to do something radically different.

The dynamics of Restaurant Week is rooted in inequity under the facade of access. Diners are getting a chance to eat at restaurants for less, with over 100 participating options to choose from. But when the big blockbuster spots (those from James Beard Award winners or several by major restaurant groups) are in the mix, the situation makes it harder for a smaller, niche restaurant to compete under the exposure.

I can count on my fingers how many Black-owned restaurants are currently participating in Center City Restaurant Week, along with Latino-owned ones that’s not under the Garces Group. I don’t blame such diverse restaurants who refuse to participate because without a strong PR team or massive media push — the potential of their success during Restaurant Week is unlikely. There’s a bold opportunity for all of this to change if those behind Restaurant Week prioritized the most marginalized among the city’s dining scene.

This week, as the final days of Center City Restaurant Week come to a close — Dine Latino Restaurant Week, an initative from the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is providing an alternative option. Addressing the lack of representation of Latino cuisine in Philly, this event is a counter to the perceived erasure and exclusion that happens during Center City Restaurant Week. Now is the time for the latter to shake the table in the name of promoting true diversity, equity, and inclusion in our city’s food scene.

It’s been twenty years. It’s time for something different.