Seven years ago, the City of Chicago kicked off what has become one of the biggest annual foodie celebrations in the country: Chicago Restaurant Week. The program, which was extended to two full weeks and this year was from January 30 to February 12, offers prix fixe lunches and dinners that have helped to put the city on the map as a culinary destination. It also benefits restaurants by giving them a much-needed boost during the slow, post-holiday period when people dine out less and McCormick Place hosts fewer conventions.

During the 2013 season, more than 435,000 diners spent nearly $21 million enjoying these specially crafted, multicourse meals at a span of 300 downtown and suburban restaurants (up from only 44 participants in 2008), according to Choose Chicago, the event producer and official city tourism group.

“Chicago Restaurant Week has been incredibly successful for Chicago and our culinary community,” says Meghan Risch, Choose Chicago’s corporate communications vice president. So much so that is has inspired areas from greater Alton to Chicago’s northwest ‘burbs to start similar programs of their own that in turn give planners more ways to elevate group dining experiences.

“There’s a revolution in dining that’s happening, and people’s expectations [about food] are changing, too,” says Dave Parulo, president of Meet Northwest Chicago, which hosted its second annual restaurant week February 19 to March 1 in eight suburban communities from Schaumburg to Itasca.

It’s “a niche people are into,” further explains Jong Cambron, public relations director for the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, which organizes two 10-day programs. There’s the traditional Restaurant Week in January and an All-Star Restaurant Week held in July that coincides with Major League Baseball’s own All-Star Week and attracts the bordering area’s St. Louis Cardinal fans.

Cambron says there is a lure of eating local: People look forward to tasting a region’s specialties like Alton’s toasted ravioli and fried chicken and will travel (even from St. Louis) for it.

If you’re planning an off-site or destination meeting, a restaurant week program adds to the appeal. “A lot more folks are food tourists now,” notes Parulo, and eating out is “a dedicated part of their travel experience.”

Some restaurant week programs even let planners make the most of local attractions. Alton’s January promotion coincides with peak eagle watching along the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. Groups meeting in the town during All-Star Restaurant Week in July can tour local wineries, too.

Planners who book meetings this spring in Lisle can also expect to hear more about its five-day restaurant week, says Katie Palombit, services coordinator for the Lisle Convention and Visitors Bureau. Participating eateries are “happy to have out-of-town guests join them” for the program, being held May 4 to 8 in conjunction with National Travel and Tourism Week.

What further helps is that public awareness for prix fixe feasts is growing. They’re heavily advertised, as in Chicago’s North Shore’s Restaurant Month in February, which is touted in its winter campaign targeting even parts of Michigan and Wisconsin. “If someone is coming to see a show or go shopping or for a weekend getaway, they’re [trying the food],” says Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Gina Speckman of thepopular program.

Social media ramps up the fun, too. Urbana, which has “quite a foodie culture,” encourages diners to post photos with the hashtag #eaturbana during its seven-day program (March 2-8), and “it gets a lot of use,” says Jessica Snyder, events coordinator for the Urbana Business Association. “Who doesn’t love Instagramming pictures of their food?”

In Alton, patrons can win gift certificates to restaurants in the Post Your Plate contest. By sharing images on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram with the hashtag #altonrw2015, they’re entered into a daily drawing. The CVB even gives away souvenir glasses to diners who bring in receipts and complete a short survey. More than 750 glasses were handed out last summer; 500 were given away in January.

Planners can tap into the excitement of restaurant weeks by holding group events during the program. Marty Balogh, associate executive director of meetings and travel at the American Bar Association, always promotes it to his meeting registrants. While a fair number of group dinners take place, “plenty of people are doing their own thing,” like dining with colleagues in small groups. These programs offer a nice selection of high-end establishments and give them “a chance to try a place they haven’t before,” he says.

Plus, many eateries have private dining spaces to accommodate groups both small and large, which is a built-in bonus.

It was rationale for Meet Chicago Northwest to start showcasing lunch opportunities to the region’s business community during their restaurant week span. “Our restaurants felt that was a real opportunity for them” to showcase their high-end fare during the peak business lunch hour, and they are “very happy to extend the restaurant week pricing to groups,” says Parulo.

“Everybody loves a good value,” says Balogh. That’s especially true for meeting attendees paying their own way. But groups also can really take advantage of restaurant week programs to maximize their budget, says Speckman. She urges planners to contact the CVB for negotiated group menus that offer even better deals.

“The set prices allow for easy planning for large parties,” adds Lizzy Freier, editor at Technomic Inc., a research firm that tracks food trends. Restaurant week programs usually attract younger customers with lower expendable income, she says, but for any diner, you “can’t beat an offer for a $22 lunch or $44 dinner at a Michelin-rated restaurant like Blackbird.”

The overall packaging is also helpful for group planning. “You know the restaurants that participate; you know the cost of your meal; you know what meals you can get because we put them online,” says Cambron.

Even if your meeting can’t tie into a restaurant week, you certainly can. It’s a great way to experience new venues and culinary offerings and to scout future meeting sites. With so many diverse offerings, it’s “a good opportunity to sample someplace new,” agrees Balogh, who himself takes part in restaurant week programs.

Just be sure to book early. “I’d definitely try to plan an event very early in advance,” says Snyder. Some programs offer online reservations; you also can contact restaurants directly.

First Bites Bash Kicks Off Chicago Fest

The fourth annual First Bites Bash, benefiting Inspiration Corporation, kicked off the eighth annual Chicago Restaurant Week on  January 29 at Union Station.

Hosting the event was Alpana Singh, a James Beard Foundation Award nominee, the youngest female to achieve the Master Sommelier distinction, former host of the television show Check, Please! and owner of two restaurants, The Boarding House and Seven Lions.

More than 50 of Chicago’s most celebrated restaurants and chefs offered sweet and savory tastings. Guests also enjoyed beer and wine tastings and spirit/cocktail pairings.

Inspiration Corporation helps people affected by homelessness and poverty to improve their lives and increase self-sufficiency through social services, employment training and placement and housing.

Get Connected

Alton Restaurant Week

Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau | 800.258.6645

Chicago Restaurant Week

Choose Chicago | 312.567.8500

Chicago’s North Shore Restaurant Month

Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau | 866.369.0011

Chicago Northwest Restaurant Week

Meet Chicago Northwest | 847.490.1010

Urbana Restaurant Week

Urbana Business Association | 217.344.3872

Lisle Restaurant Week

Lisle Convention and Visitors Bureau | 800.733.9811

Alton All-Star Restaurant Week

Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau | 800.258.6645

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