Beginning Friday, the question of where to eat gets a little more interesting.
Local restaurants, half of them in the Towson area, are participating in Baltimore County Restaurant Week. For 17 days and nights, special menus highlight diners' favorites or give chefs a little space for experimentation — all at a bargain price designed to draw new customers into the dining rooms of 61 participating restaurants.
Restaurants in the York Road corridor have been enthusiastic participants in Restaurant Week, according to Marjorie Hampson, Baltimore County's director of tourism and promotion. "This is our biggest year ever," Hampson said, noting the number of new participants, along with mainstays such as The Milton Inn.
It was the executive chef and owner of The Milton Inn who started the county's Restaurant Week. Brian Boston wanted his Sparks restaurant included in the Baltimore City Restaurant Week — but when he was turned down, he turned around and started the county promotion eight years ago. "That's how the whole thing started," he said.
Consequently, any restaurant that wants to be included in Baltimore County's Restaurant Week is welcomed in, he added. This year, that includes Baltimore City locations, Mountain Branch Golf Club Grille in Harford County and Boston's own Howard County-based Highland Inn.
"I like to be inclusive," he said, adding he'd like to see a region-wide or statewide restaurant week. The disjointed, overlapping local promotions "gets a little confusing for diners," he said.
Boston said he's pleased with the success of Restaurant Week. Participation has grown about five-fold in eight years — and diners keep tables full. August traditionally is a quiet month.
"It used to be," Boston said. "Now it's not. It went from being the slowest month to one of the busiest months of the year."
Restaurants are creating specially priced prix fixe menus, including diners' favorites along with some items created specially for the promotion. Menu prices vary from restaurant to restaurant — just as the offerings vary.
Silver Spring Mining Co., which has restaurants in both Hunt Valley and Perry Hall, added menu items usually run as specials during the year, according to Melanie Rhodes, marketing manager and events coordinator for Silver Spring. At lunch, that means a blackened tuna-avocado salad or crab melt.
The three-course dinner offerings include rockfish with lemon butter and crab meat or steak and cake. Now steak and cake is a regular item, Rhodes said. "It's not ever at this price," she said.
For new restaurants, the promotion offers an opportunity to introduce their businesses to the community. Cunningham's opened only a few weeks before the January restaurant week. "It was a great success," said Amber McCormack, assistant manager. "We definitely wanted to do that again."
Newcomer Fazzini's Taverna, which took over PIV's restaurant space 12 weeks ago, has had a business start but owner Ari Brownstein said restaurant week offers a chance to showcase their new space and menu. "I didn't want to disappoint diners who were looking to try us out," he said.
The chef has developed a menu with some regular items — lasagna and grilled salmon — and some new salad appetizers, Brownstein said.
Greene Turtle Sports Bar and Grille on York Road isn't new, but its rooftop space is open for its first summer. "We're hoping it will bring people in and they'll become our regular customers," said Joann Golden, manager of the Towson franchise.
Five Turtle locations are participating in Restaurant Week — including two in Baltimore City. "It was a corporate decision," said Golden. "Why wouldn't we all participate?"
All five will offer the same three-course menu for $18 with crab pizza, Eastern Shore mac and cheese, and brownie sundae. All are items customers will recognize from the regular menu, with a lower price. "It's a really good deal," Golden said.
Christopher Daniel has taken part in Restaurant Week since that very first promotion, and it's always successful, according to Bonnie Kerin, manager and event coordinator for the York Road corridor restaurant.
"I would say we at least double our business," Kerin said. She credits the website, baltimorecountyrestaurantweek.com, which lists all the menus for lunch and dinner, for bringing in new business. "The Internet is a big tool," she said.
This year's offering, priced at $25.14, includes items off the regular menu, with a choice of appetizer and dessert along with entrees, including Christopher Daniel's popular diver scallops, crab cake and lamb chops.
Every year's offerings are different. A four-course tasting menu was offered one year — and when diners said they wanted bigger portions, a three-course menu replaced it for the next restaurant week, Kerin said. "It's simple this time," she said, adding that halfway through the chef may add a few different items.
"It does attract a lot of new customers to our business," she said.