Why some top dining destinations steer clear of Denver Restaurant Week

Here’s what organizers want you to know about Denver Restaurant Week: The 10-day-long promotion of Denver restaurants offers fixed-priced menus for as little as $25. It’s a celebration of Denver dining and a chance to eat at some of the nicest restaurants in town for a steal, comparatively. It’s a way for local businesses to get a spike during one of the slowest times of the year, and it creates some positive press for our local dining scene.

Now here’s what organizers don’t want you to know about Denver Restaurant Week: Some of the best places to dine out locally don’t actually participate.

Restaurant Week has a reputation for generating reservation-book and dining-room madness for the 10 days (Feb. 21-March 1 this year) that it lasts. Some owners say it can be hard on a business’ bottom line and on employee morale. To make a lower price point work for their business, chefs and owners might have to slash food costs and serve a less representative product, or else they could swallow the cost and hope for a longterm payoff.

For the 16 years that Denver’s signature dining event has been gaining traction and growing to more than 250 participating venues, a quiet but obvious bunch of destinations has opted out altogether.

RELATED: Denver Restaurant Week has gone from 83 eateries to 238 since it started.

“I think Restaurant Week is great for the city as a whole, but it’s tough on the individual operator,” said Jeff Osaka, chef and owner of 12 at Madison, Osaka Ramen and Sushi-Rama restaurants in Denver. “Especially when you’re a single store, because you don’t have others to fall back on… We want to offer it, but it doesn’t really offer us a return, or anything at all.”

The main reason Osaka chooses not to participate in Denver Restaurant Week is that it would sacrifice his “guests’ experience,” he said. “Everybody puts lower-priced (ingredients on menus)… and I didn’t really want to compromise. To be able to afford Restaurant Week, I think you have to make a lot of compromises.”

While each of Osaka’s restaurants has a different price point, he said it wouldn’t make sense to sell conveyor-belt sushi or ramen bowls, for example, for a set menu price of $25, $35 or $45 per person.

“Ramen and sushi, they’re too cheap, and then 12 (at Madison) is tough,” Osaka said. At 12 at Madison, the group’s finer dining flagship, a compact dinner menu consists of plates for “grazing,” with starters and mains priced from $9-$20, while desserts cost $9-$12.

Kathryn Scott, Special to The Denver Post

Customers enjoy their meals as head chef Toby Prout, right, along with line cook Taylor Lesbie prepare menu items from the open kitchen.The staff at 12 at Madison create their food and drink for dinner patrons on Feb. 15, 2020 in Denver.

“You can probably eat just as cheaply at 12 for any Restaurant Week offer I can give,” he said. “I think we are just as busy, at full prices, and there are regular customers who thank me for not doing Restaurant Week, you know, because they can come in and get a table.”

Some restaurant groups elect to take part at one of their restaurants but not another. Still others say they always participate and have figured out the formula for success.

A sampling of other Denver restaurants not participating in 2020 Restaurant Week: Acorn, Annette, Barolo Grill, Cart-Driver, Dio Mio, Fruition, Hop Alley, Mercantile, Olivia, Q House, Rioja, Sunday Vinyl, Sushi Den, Tavernetta, To The Wind, Uchi and Uncle.

At the new Restaurant Olivia on Downing Street, owners Austin Carson, Heather Morrison and Ty Leon offered similar reasons for not participating in Restaurant Week in their first year of business.

“For us, it’s economic,” Carson said. Since Olivia opened in January, the 35-seat restaurant has been filling steadily as Carson and crew welcome first-time customers and build regulars in what would normally be a slow season. And why would they interrupt that early momentum to fill seats with Restaurant Week diners at a fraction of the ticket cost?