San Diego Restaurant Week celebrates fifth year

The fifth annual San Diego Restaurant Week kicks off Jan. 11, giving San Diegans a chance to sample a fixed-price, three course meal at more than 150 area restaurants. The six-day event, which concludes Jan. 16, has earned the city the unofficial title of Restaurant Week Central for the southwestern U.S.

“I’ve been trying to put together an event for San Diego for over a dozen years,” said event organizer Ingrid Croce, owner of Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar in the Gaslamp Quarter. “It was our hope … to be able to bring our city up to the level of recognition as a dining destination.”

Having just returned from Hawaii where Croce shared her expertise with island restaurateurs, she said San Diego’s success is culling interest from other U.S. and European cities hoping to develop similar culinary experiences.

While local patrons are encouraged to take advantage of Restaurant Week offerings, part of the event’s purpose is to attract visitors.

“We try to build (Restaurant Week) around a time when it isn’t too busy within the city,” Croce said. “We try to encourage people to come and stay at hotels and make a week of it.”

Last year more than 250,000 dinners were served during Restaurant Week. Croce expects that number to climb this year, especially when diners learn the fixed-price menus have been expanded to include a $20 option.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Croce said, referencing the money crunch many are feeling. “Even in this economy, when people are questioning if they should go out or not, they should treat themselves to Restaurant Week. It’s a week-long chance for diners to experience what San Diego has to offer.”

Restaurants are encouraged to create a three-course meal from dishes already on the menu at a price point that reflects about a 20 percent discount.

Given the fact that the number of participating restaurants has doubled since year one, this strategy seems to be working for both proprietors and diners.

“We’re able to really do something that is indicative of what’s on our menu,” said Wade Hageman, executive chef at Blanca in Solana Beach. “It’s important to do something that we would serve in our restaurant at any given time. You’re really exposing your product to a lot of people.”

The $40 menu at Blanca will include something old and new: Merlot braised short ribs and “popcorn” shrimp (three jumbo prawns dusted in popped popcorn powder).

“We want to promote the restaurant, not just pack people in because it’s Restaurant Week,” Hageman said.

“The best thing is that it brings in people who wouldn’t normally come to our restaurant,” said Angela Neri, assistant general manager of Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe.

In addition to world-class cuisine by executive chef Michael Knowles, such as the maple glazed pork belly and trio of heirloom beets, first-time visitors to Delicias will have an opportunity to sample the eatery’s award-winning ambiance.

Neri suggested calling ahead to get a table near the courtyard fireplace, one of the most popular locations in the restaurant.

Organized by the California Restaurant Association in partnership with the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau and San Diego Magazine, Restaurant Week will be held twice in 2009: Jan. 11-16 and Sept. 13-18. For more information, visit