Going Local with Restaurant Week

Restaurant Week was regarded as a success following its inauguration in Fall of 2010. Nov. 3-13 will mark Grand Rapids' second installment of culinary exploration. 71 restaurants have signed up to participate, offering a three-course meal (at least -- some restaurants offer more courses) for $25, or, in a change from last year's single flat price, 2 meals for $25 at select establishments.

"One thing about restaurant week that makes it different is that it's probably the only time when the restaurants are front and center, and also banding together," Sally Zarafonetis, Marketing, says. "They're a group that's cohesive and all doing this great thing, which is putting out a welcome mat to have people come in and appreciate their foods. And they're getting recognized for it, too."

With Grand Rapids Community College's Secchia Institute for Culinary Education located right downtown, there's no reason why Grand Rapids shouldn't be full of innovative, talented chefs producing an array of interesting menus. In a city where buying local has almost become a principal over a preference for some, eating local has become equally important.

Janet Korn, VP of Marketing at Experience Grand Rapids, is all about attracting people to Grand Rapids, and she says the number one attractor of visitors is their friends and relatives who live here. And hopefully, those friends and relatives are the kind of people who will educate visitors as to what Grand Rapids uniquely has to offer, as opposed to just going to chains and franchises.

But first, "We need to educate [those] friends and relatives about what kind of food we have," she says.

Which is where Restaurant Week is an ideal experience for visitors and locals alike. "If you've never been somewhere before," Korn says, "you could be afraid of what it's going to cost. [With Restaurant Week], you're going to get plenty of food for $25. It's a new experience that has a level of risk that's not that great."

And, Zarafonetis reminds us, "You can see the menus in advance."

One menu of interest is the authentic Italian offerings at Amore Trattoria Italiana. Their restaurant week menu offers five courses. Tucked away on Alpine Ave. and 6 Mile (5080 Alpine Ave. NW), this locally owned and operated eatery uses local products to make everything from scratch. Owner and Chef Jenna Archidiacono opened the restaurant with her husband, a native Italian hailing from Milan, a year and a half ago.

"Before we opened, I met with some people and they kind of looked at me like I was nuts because I wanted to make everything from scratch," she says. "It's more work, but the quality of food is 100 percent better than what you get when it comes on a truck, already pre-prepared."

Archidiacono says a new wave in Italian cooking involves only using foods that you can find with in 1 km of where you are located. While she can't get that tight, she can get pretty close. She sources everything she can locally, and from as close as she can manage, using small markets like Under the Pines.

"The best part about that is I can focus on what I want and ask the farmers to make it for me," she says. "For example, I can get zucchini and pumpkin flowers that you stuff and beer batter and fry. I couldn't get them until I asked the farmers. Now, I do them once a week. They wilt, so they have to be served the day that I get them, so it's a special treat for those who know about them."

Eating local is only the beginning. Restaurant Week also encourages drinking local. Founders Brewing Company, one of the event's primary sponsors, has proven itself to be one of the fastest growing companies in the region. In 2007, the brewery moved from the Monroe North neighborhood to a much larger space on Grandville Ave. Since then, they've undergone major expansions, increasing their capacity from 45,000 barrels to 100,000 and employing nearly 100 employees. Besides being distributed in 16 states, you can find Founders on tap or in bottles at numerous eateries around town.

"The big thing for us getting involved with restaurant week is supporting the folks who have been supporting us," Dave Engberg, Founders VP and Director of Marketing, says.

For those who may be visiting during Restaurant Week, Experience Grand Rapids has put together packages at select hotels in the area, featuring a Culture Pass and a $15 Visa gift card. Additionally, Restaurant Week raises money for Secchia Institute for Culinary Education by donating $1 from each plate sold. Last year, the event raised $19,128 for the school.

Menus can be found online at restaurantweekgr.com. Now is the time to start making your reservations.  

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.