Dine About Town back for seconds

Budget-minded San Francisco diners will get a second chance to sample dozens of the city’s best eateries at discounted prices when Dine About Town returns June 1-15.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau-sponsored promotion, in which more than 100 local restaurants will offer diners fixed-price meals, has taken place annually since 2002.

This year, however, the popular event, which offers three-course dinners for $31.95 and lunches for $21.95, has been split for the first time into two two-week sessions. An earlier session took place January 15-31.

“I love that it’s happening twice,” said AsiaSF owner Skip Young. “The two-week period puts some urgency on it. I’ve always noticed that the number of dinner guests rises during the last few days of the event, so we get more of that.”

AsiaSF has participated in Dine About Town since 2003. The restaurant applies the rates to dinner only, and only Monday to Friday.

But Jeff Hollinger, events manager at Absinthe Brasserie and Bar, likes the promotion because it lets Absinthe offer the discounted rate just at lunchtime. The special pricing attracts consumers to the lower-volume lunch hours without reducing revenues for evenings, Hollinger said.

Golden Gate Restaurant Association president Kevin Westlye said he has heard mixed reviews about the promotion, particularly from restaurateurs serving more expensive cuisine.

“There’s been a tremendous inflation in wages and benefits and more recently in food cost and so the cost of dining has simply gone up,” Westlye said. “So, in today’s market, [restaurants on the high end] cannot afford to discount at that level, because some of the patrons will trade down.”

Dine About Town was devised in response to the economic downturn after Sept. 11, 2001, according to Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Angela Jackson. The CVB hoped to motivate diners to go out and spend.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association co-sponsored Dine About Town in its development but eventually backed out, citing problems with organizational structure. Weslye said his group is developing a one-week promotion.

Modeled after “Restaurant Week” in New York City and Washington, D.C., the event has grown steadily, rising from 78 restaurants and 15,211 diners during a three-week period in 2003 to 109 restaurants and 33,955 diners in the two weeks earlier this year.

Diners participating per restaurant per day of the event grew an average of 31.2 percent in those years, and the total number of diners grew an average of 18.4 percent. January 2008 marked a 20 percent improvement from 2007.

However, Westlye described the benefits as “marginal.”

According to its own figures, the CVB’s online reservations drew more than $1,021,000 in Dine About Town revenue to San Francisco restaurants in January. That revenue divides to $9,370 per participating restaurant during the 17 days, or $551 per day.

By comparison, the CVB spent almost $15,000 advertising the 2008 event.

“But the CVB mission is to promote San Francisco and venturing to San Francisco, and I think there are some consistent residual benefits to promoting visiting and dining in San Francisco,” Weslye added.

Young said that Web reservations represent just a small portion of total Dine About Town sales. He also pointed to the intangible benefits of added publicity and the excitement of a restaurant filled with extra people.

“It introduces you to a new crowd of people, and they’re not a cheap crowd,” Young said. “Most of the [Dine About Town] crowd are potential returns. You show them where to come back and they have the money and the wherewithal to do it.”

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