I've never seen Azur so packed.
I walk past the small Mediterranean bistro, the semi-new venture by Ristra owner Eric Lamalle, pretty much every time I scoot out of the house for a last-minute bottle of wine ---(which happens more than I'd like to admit). Usually, it looks about average for a Santa Fe restaurant on a winter weeknight: mostly older diners in small groups, and enough empty tables that you figure you probably don't need a reservation.
But on the Friday of Santa Fe Restaurant Week, the place was stuffed to the gills. Diners of every stripe—young, old, grungy, well-dressed—huddled around the bar, sipping wine and waiting for tables. The people ahead of my intrepid companion and me were turned away; they didn't have a reservation. When we asked the hostess if we should leave and come back, she sighed with relief and sent us out the door. Some 30 minutes after our 8 pm reservation, we finally got a seat.
According to New Mexico Restaurant Week co-founder and organizer Michele Ostrove, Azur was so full because it hit the Restaurant Week sweet spot: providing a great deal (a three-course prix fixe dinner was $19.95, a veritable steal) while also taking advantage of the opportunities the week offers.
"We consider Restaurant Week as a marketing opportunity to [restaurants]: You have a week to make that great impression on people, and it's up to you to put your best foot forward and really showcase what you're about," Ostrove says. She adds that a change in the way restaurants were priced—within a range delineated by dollar signs ($-$$$$), rather than at set prices—also allowed some restaurants more room to maneuver.
Azur, for instance, priced itself just within the $ range, which included anything up to $20 per person.
"We did find that the lower-priced restaurant menus were more popular, in some cases," Ostrove says, citing pan-African favorite Jambo Café. "We talked to [chef/owner] Ahmed Obo yesterday, and he was hopping the whole week…Ristra and Azur both were very well priced and, by all reports, they were phenomenally busy." Some higher-priced restaurants, she says, didn't do as well.
Santa Fe Restaurant Week—part of a series of Restaurant Weeks that take place around the state in March and April—is also known for its events, but Ostrove says fewer restaurants hosted them this year.
"They said they were too busy," she explains.
Those that did hold events reaped the benefit. Take La Boca, where a $15 daily lunchtime prix fixe makes Restaurant Week deals seem almost ho-hum. We went there anyway, for a late lunch over the weekend, where we unwittingly sat in on a cooking demonstration by acclaimed chef James Campbell Caruso. Ostrove says that class sold out, as did a sake tasting at Shohko Café and a wine tasting at Bishop's Lodge.
Ostrove says the organizers don't yet know the attendance for each restaurant, but even so, changes will be afoot once New Mexico's various Restaurant Weeks wrap up. Ostrove mentions a new, year-round "dining portal" for locals and visitors (follow @DineNewMexico on Twitter for more information) and additional events throughout the year geared toward getting people to try new restaurants.
Although I only tried one new restaurant—Anasazi, and that's another story—I gained a new appreciation for two of my favorites, Azur and La Boca. Perversely, I also realized what a blessing it is to enjoy top-notch restaurants in winter, when you don't have to elbow your way past the salivating hordes.