If Louisville’s restaurant boom proves one thing, it’s that customers like choice. Who needs to eat at the same places all the time when restaurants offering completely different cuisines and experiences keep opening?
But Friday and Saturday of Kentucky Derby week, the choices at many finer restaurants are pared back significantly through the use of prix fixe (fixed price in English) menus. Rather than running the full menu, chefs prepare a limited roster of their best dishes—or a lineup of one-offs—with the goal of gaining better control over purchasing, prepping and final cooking of foods on guests’ plates.
Some restaurant regulars I’ve talked to object to such limited menus, especially when the restaurant is a favorite of theirs and they want to guide their guests to specific favorite dishes when they visit this week. I get that. No one likes choices reduced.
And it makes me consider my own experience as a chef in the 1980s, when we offered not only the full menu during Derby Week, but added a few high-dollar specials to the mix. It was hell preparing all our normal food to a multiple of 4, but we pulled it off relatively well.
But in defense of chefs taking the prix fixe route, there’s no denying that changes in local restaurants and the Kentucky Derby itself have forced them to pare back some. On April 21, I asked “why prix fixe?” on my Facebook page, and here’s a bit of what I learned:
- Post time of the Kentucky Derby comes later than ever. If memory serves me correctly, Derbies long ago went off around 5:30 p.m. That meant the first guests of the evening began trickling in close to 6. By 6:30, when crowds from the track were coming in, restaurants were serving their first full “turn,” the industry term used for a full seating and emptying of their tables.
Now, however, the race goes off more than an hour later, meaning restaurants lose that first turn (and a lot of revenue, too), and guests all try to get in for a single seating at 7:30 p.m. The need for speed at the restaurant is greater than ever, and streamlining the menu with limited choices is one solution to that problem.
- Many restaurants were larger back two and three decades ago. A full seating at some of the places I worked ranged between 200 and 300 people. But think about how many local independent finer-dining spots have that many seats these days? Most seat about 100. Many of the older restaurants simply had the seating capacity to handle the crush better.
Bigger restaurants also had more storage to hold the massive quantities of food needed for the week. And even then, when I worked at Sixth Avenue, a huge restaurant with four large walk-in coolers, we still rented a refrigerated truck for overflow production. Modern indie restaurants simply aren’t that big, and lacking such basic infrastructure can be a problem this week.
- Restaurant staffs are much smaller than ever. Several operators who responded publicly and privately said many local indies serve somewhere between 75 and 150 guests on a common Saturday night, numbers they can manage with small staffs. To serve double that number in a compressed period of time—along with the full menu—isn’t the best way to go, they say.
And the ongoing restaurant staffing shortage—it happens when you open as many restaurants as we’ve seen here the past few years—only aggravates the situation during Derby Week.
But not everyone agrees. At least two chefs who responded said their restaurants (Harvest and Bistro 1860) are running not only full menus, but additional tasting menus and amped-up specials. Are those staffs just better able to handle the crunch? Or are their chefs just old school-stubborn and insisting it be done the hard way?
I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t think it matters. It’s just their choice to do that, and having cooked through eight Derbies, I’m in awe of chefs Patrick Roney and Michael Crouch and their crews. Given the choice to go prix fixe, I think I’d have done it on the off chance it would lower the insanity level some—and restaurants are insane places to work this week.
So if you’re going out to dinner this week, be patient in those places that are super-busy. Know it may take a little bit more time to get your food and drink, but it’ll get there. Look forward to prix fixe menus (if that’s what they’re serving) because they may hold some neat surprises reflecting those chefs’ whims of the moment. And just be happy you live in a marvelous city like this one for the greatest party in the world this weekend.