10 March 2009

Support your local restaurant: dine out Sunday to Thursday

A friend of mine runs one of the neighborhood associations in Boston's South End. He related the story of how one local restaurateur -- Felino Samson of Pops Restaurant, which I think is one of the neighborhood's better fine-dining values -- is seeking approvals to expand his seating to include a bar area. Pops loses a lot of business on weekends from walk-ins who'd like to dine there but have no comfortable place to wait 30-60 minutes for a table at peak hours. Rather than cooling their heels on the curb, these folks often just mosey along to one of the other dozens of nearby restaurants to see if they can get in on shorter notice, or at least relax with a drink indoors while they're waiting.

While I hope Samson gets his wish to expand, his problem points to a broader one with Boston restaurants in the current economy: many diners have greatly curtailed their dining out on weeknights. I can confirm this just walking around the South End from Sundays through Thursdays: one dining room after another sits largely empty, with perhaps a handful of patrons dining at the bar. People are still dining out, but are heavily concentrating their business into Friday and Saturday nights. That leads to weekend crushes and long waits for those without the foresight to make reservations. For places like Pops (and I suspect other restaurants), it means further lost business because they're close to capacity on those nights, and the business goes elsewhere, but doesn't return on a weeknight when they've got ready seats.

I live in the South End and have long avoided weekend dining out in the neighborhood because the character of the crowd changes too much: it feels like a Weston/Wellesley cocktail party. Unlike weeknights, I see few people I know from the neighborhood. With the recession-driven shift in habits, weekend dining out has gotten worse: the crowds in the bars, the extra-long waits even for reserved tables, the general harriedness of the service and the kitchens all add up to a sub-optimal experience for my limited dining-out dollars.

So I'm dining out mostly on weeknights now, not just in the South End, but everywhere. I'm getting better service, avoiding the exurbanite masses, and supporting my favorite restaurants when the business means more to them. If you want your most beloved places to stay in business, and to have a better time for yourself, I encourage you to do the same.