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OPINION: Dine Out Vancouver is a great way to get out and taste something new

Here's why you should support the annual fest, and some tips for doing it right
Feast in West Vancouver is set to participate in this year’s Dine Out Vancouver. File photo by Paul McGrath/North Shore News

It was 2002. I was on the way out the door of the restaurant I was managing (and the industry, more generally), burnt out and full to the brim, frankly speaking, of disdain for the dining audience, myself included.

I couldn’t stand what I perceived to be the pretence of it all, the smoke and mirrors that affected a polished veneer atop a bitter, cynical, sometimes festering core. I hated myself for patronizing venues where my culinary and beverage knowledge was prized by gratuity-earning staff who saw me as nothing more than a welcome boon to their nightly earnings.

I had a long, hard talk with myself about my life choices and decided I was done with hospitality.

It was against this troubled horizon that I was approached for participation in a new initiative from Tourism Vancouver designed to expose new diners to restaurants during what is typically a challenging, financially tenuous shoulder season – mid-January, when everyone is tapped from the holidays.

The program was called Dine Out Vancouver and involved restaurants offering a pre-established menu of dishes for a nominal price. At the time, I believe the suggested maximum menu price was $25, a figure I sneered at as impossibly constrictive, implausible at best. The idea was to expose new diners, enticed by democratic pricing, to your operation, sowing seeds for the future and providing some much-needed revenue to carry you through to the spring.

I said no to the opportunity, projecting my own bitterness onto an imagined crowd of diners. They’ll all order the heavily-discounted menu items, I thought, and nothing else. They’ll drink only water. They’ll tip on the discounted price rather than the actual menu value. They’ll be extremely demanding, expecting white glove service for Grand Slam prices, knowing that I’m participating because it is a difficult time of year. I’ll never see any of them again, I thought, once the event is over, save maybe for next year when they crawl back out of the woodwork for another rarefied meal during Dine Out.

Well, here we are at the advent of a new decade and Dine Out has been a roaring success. It heads into its 18th season this month, running Jan. 17-Feb. 2,  and continues to draw some of the biggest names in the industry as participants, including the venue I once managed.

As an industry alum, avid diner, and frequent reporter on the topic of restaurants, I frequently muse over the phenomenon that is Dine Out Vancouver. While I tend to avoid dining out during the annual event (except at non-participating venues), I do recognize the value it represents. For many businesses, it is a timely boost that permits the continued employment of notoriously hard-to-come-by and-retain restaurant staff, both front and back of house; there is little worse than laying off the staff members that helped you get through the manic Christmas season just weeks before. For others, it is a way to experiment with new menu items, trialling kitchen innovations to an uninitiated audience in order to work out the kinks before a spring or summer menu launch. For a select few, it is a lifeblood, infusing a dose of cash flow that will keep creditors at bay until seasonal volumes come back.

So please, if you are inclined to shelve your resolutions for a few nights this month, by all means go see what participants have on offer during this event and take advantage of the steals you will get on your meals.

If you do this, however, I implore you to please bear in mind a few things: Dine Out Vancouver is an exceedingly busy time for most participants. If you book a table, show up for your reservation. There is a loathsome habit in our city during this annual event for patrons to book multiple venues simultaneously and then choose the one they will visit last minute; aside from being patently rude, this completely destroys the evening’s seating plan and displaces others who might have relished the seat you forfeited had there been time to book it. It can also result in expensive over-staffing scenarios as a restaurant was prepared for a huge volume of guests that never manifests.

Along these same lines, be on time for your reservation. It is painfully difficult for a host to tell a walk-in party that the empty table by the window is being held for a reservation that is late; it is twice as hard to tell an on-time party that their table is not yet ready because the previous party showed up late and hasn’t yet finished their meal.

Similarly, don’t linger for three hours over your post-meal beverage. You may be feeling relaxed and sated, but that group that was told to check back in 30 minutes for a free table is now sending eye daggers your way as you order your third herbal tea and chortle away your companion’s witticisms.

The set menu prices for Dine Out Vancouver are $15, $25, or $35, this last price typically reserved for venues the menus of which are priced at the absolute upper end of the spectrum. Even at $35, the value will tend to be exceptional, with restaurateurs operating with wafer thin margins in the name of supporting the event and showcasing their skills. Asking for menu modifications is some kind of entitlement and, no matter how polite your server is upon hearing your request, please know that such requests are likely going to be met with no little contempt by the kitchen line. Also, it is a good idea to practise to thoroughly check out the menu on offer before you visit a place. Experimentation is encouraged, but if you find the dish descriptions are really not to your taste, you ought to either arrive with the most open of minds or simply choose another venue. Sending dishes back because they are not to your taste (which is not to say poorly prepared, just simply outside of your palate’s comfort zone) is bad form and potentially threatens a restaurant’s willingness and/or ability to participate in Dine Out again.

I relay these recommendations to you, all of them hard won through my immersion in the dining scene of our city, only in the name of ensuring that this annual event is well supported on both sides of the table; for every delighted diner that finds her new favourite spot in town there needs to be a restaurant operator equally delighted in the outcome of their participation in order to keep the offerings robust, varied, and exciting.

The reveal of the full restaurant participant list for this year's Dine Out Vancouver will happen on Jan. 9.

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