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Saturday, July 01, 2006

"Dine Out With Visa" Promotion: Diner Beware

Each January for the past five years, VISA and the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau have jointly sponsored Dine About Town -- a promotion that enables local diners to enjoy a three-course dinner at participating restaurants for $31.95.   The event has apparently been quite successful -- so much so, in fact, that its sponsors have now launched a new promotional program to follow in its footsteps.   This one, called Dine Out With Visa, will be held at various Bay Area establishments from July 1-31, and it offers diners a four-course dinner for $54.95 (exclusive of tax and gratuity).   A complete list of participating restaurants, along with program details, can be found here.

I've always liked the concept behind the original Dine About Town, because it gives people a financial incentive to explore restaurants that they otherwise might not be inclined to try.   It does this, of course, by promising a three-course dinner for $32 at restaurants at which an appetizer, entree and dessert would normally cost more than that amount.   When I first heard about the new Dine Out With Visa promotion, I couldn't help but wonder whether the same incentives actually exist.   Is $54.95 for a four-course meal really a bargain at the restaurants that are participating?

Consider the Nuevo Latino restaurant Destino, which is one of the program participants.   Destino's four-course promotional menu will give diners three options for the first course, three for the second course, and three for the dessert course.   The third course offers no choice and is simply identified as "Seasonal Quinoa Taboule Stuffed in Organic Heirloom Tomatoes."   The cost for this meal, presumably, will be the standard advertised amount -- $54.95.   Notably, however, Destino already has a three-course prix fixe meal on its regular menu, one that's identical to its promotional menu save the Quinoa Taboule.   The price?   $31.95.   So, if there's no change in portion size between the regular menu and the promotional menu, it appears that diners will essentially be paying $23 for Quinoa Taboule -- an absurd amount given the price point of this restaurant.

Let's take another example, this time from the Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial.   Its Dine Out With Visa menu also offers diners some options, but one available combination consists of the following four dishes (with the restaurant's regular menu price for each selection indicated in parentheses):   (1) Canh Chua Chay ($9);   (2) Cha Gio ($11);   (3) Ga Roti Xa ($23);   and (4) Chocolate Flourless Cake ($8, since all desserts are priced at $8).   Notice anything odd?   That's right, if you order these four items off of the regular menu, you'll pay only $51 -- $4 less than what the four-course meal will presumably cost you under the promotion.

Another baffling example comes from Aziza, the Moroccan restaurant located in the Richmond district of San Francisco.   This restaurant is offering a promotional menu that is seemingly identical to the prix fixe menu that is always provided whenever a party of 8 or more dines at the establishment.   The former will presumably cost $54.95 per person;   the latter costs only $45 per person.   Even more perplexing, Aziza regularly offers diners in parties of less than 8 a five-course tasting menu for only $42 per person.   Again, assuming comparable portion sizes, why would anybody pay $10-$13 more for the same food?

Although I've described a few of the troubling examples above, there are other restaurants participating in the new promotion that are in precisely the same boat.   Now, maybe these establishments are actually planning to increase portion sizes for the dishes that appear on their promotional menus.   Or perhaps they intend to embellish these dishes by using higher-grade or additional ingredients than are used when the same items are served off the regular menu.   Or maybe they're not planning to charge the full $54.95, despite the fact that this is being advertised as the going rate under the promotion.   I certainly hope that at least one of the foregoing explanations is true.   In case my hopes are dashed, however, just beware:   don't assume that you're better off proceeding under the Dine Out With Visa promotion than you are simply ordering off the restaurant's regular menu.


Blogger Amy Sherman said...

I have to admit I kind of wondered about this one. I love Destino and Aziza but I have eaten very well at each for much less than $55.

July 01, 2006 10:37 AM  
Blogger K & S said...

wow! that does sound like a rip-off, thanks for sharing!

July 02, 2006 2:26 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Amy & Kat: I really do hope that there's a simple explanation for all of this, because it's otherwise quite disturbing. I should point out, by the way, that illogical outcomes of the type described above are not universal within the Dine Out With Visa program. There are some participating establishments (such as Big 4 Restaurant) that really do appear to be offering a bargain, in that the food included in the promotional menu would normally cost more than $54.95 if ordered separately. So, the lesson is simply to proceed cautiously.

July 02, 2006 11:41 AM  
Blogger K & S said...

good advice!!

July 02, 2006 6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very interesting. Aside from Big 4 Restaurant that was mentioned above, are there any other retaurants that do offer a bargain? I'm going up to SF later this month and would like to take advantage of this deal... assuming it's an actual deal at that restaurant.

July 11, 2006 8:53 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Anonymous: Unfortunately, I have not had an opportunity to go through the entire list of participating restaurants to determine which ones are, in fact, offering a bargain. Furthermore, making this determination is not necessarily easy, because (1) some restaurants have not posted their promotional menus online, and (2) some restaurants are offering items on their promotional menus that are not on their regular menus (making it impossible to compare prices).

That said, my suspicion is that even those restaurants that are giving diners a price break are probably providing only a relatively modest one. In other words, most of the participating establishments are not so expensive to begin with that a $55 dinner represents a substantial savings.

July 12, 2006 1:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for these comments, the people who arrange these promotions (SFCVB)warn the participating restaurants that today's diners are savy about pricing and what a restaurant normally offers and to make sure what they are offering is indeed worth the $54.95. That's why I tend to visit restaurants that are normally viewed as 'high end' I think I have a better chance of getting my money's worth. I recently tried PlumpJack Cafe and was very happy with the offering, the regular menu pricing was fairly reasonable for this type of place, and the prix fixe was generous both in portion size but also in it's delicious quality of ingredients and preparation. Add to that the really fair priced wine list and you don't feel ripped off at all. My friend and I shared a couple of the first courses and I had to take part of my entree home. So bargains are out there, just look around!!

July 15, 2006 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! I was concerned about the price as well. I would hope that a company like VISA would realize that people are ultimately going to feel cheated with their promotion. The participating restuarants are should be ashamed of themselves.

July 21, 2006 12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Penny said. . .
This program is very good but have to make sure that the restaurant that are participating is worth visiting. I did visit most of them in San Francisco and one that stick to my mind is DESTINO. It is a shame that they are included to this program. I went to DESTINO with my big surprised and dissappointment. I asked for more bread and they told me that they are running low on bread and each customer is only allowed to have one each. To my dismay, we have a 6:30 reservation, and they are running out of bread! I really don't want to say they are discriminating me (I'm Asian) but to get that kind of service, I think it is very bad and to be included in this such a good promotion of Visa, I think it is a shame to include DESTINO!

January 16, 2009 10:34 AM  

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