Did you know that you can sit down at some of the finest restaurants in Western New York and enjoy an entire three-course meal for less than you’d pay for some of its single dishes?
Welcome to the prix fixe.
Pronounced “pree feeks,” it’s a French term meaning fixed price. Its classic form includes a starter – soup, salad or appetizer – then an entrée and dessert.
Don’t let the fancy name deter you – it’s a package deal, the same concept as two-meals-for-$25 specials at chain restaurants. Except in this case the deal is your passport to experiencing some of the most deluxe dining accommodations in town. Even if you order the least expensive food, the rest of the experience – the servers, the decor, the overall feel of the place – should be the same for you as it is for the big spenders.
The main reason places offer prix fixes is to get customers in the door on slow nights. It’s especially attractive to budget-conscious customers who can arrive knowing how much they have to spend for a meal.
How can restaurants avoid losing money on the deal? In many cases, the entrée portions are smaller, like at Ristorante Lombardo, (1198 Hertel Ave., ristorantelombardo.com, 873-4291), whose prix fixe runs Monday through Thursday. For $33, customers can choose three courses from a short list of appetizers, first courses, entrees and desserts.
The grilled strip steak would be 16 ounces in its full form, as a $39 entrée. As part of the prix fixe, it’s an 8-ounce steak, and two other courses, all for $6 less than the full steak would cost.
“It’s something we do to incentivize people to come out on nights when we’re not doing much business, we have open tables and open seats anyways,” said Thomas D. Lombardo, son of owner Thomas G. Lombardo.
“Once we get them in the door, it’s up to us to make it a memorable evening for them,” Lombardo said. “The 3 for $33 isn’t a huge moneymaker for us, but if we can expand our base of regulars, in the long run we win.”
At Salvatore’s Italian Gardens (6461 Transit Road, Lancaster, salvatores.net, 683-7990), the prix fixe lets the restaurant “offer more choices to a wider array of people,” said Nick Salvatore. “People can walk in and you can get a three-course meal for $33, or the surf and turf for $90.”
At Salvatore’s, the prix fixe diner can choose a house or Caesar salad, minestrone or soup of the day, one of nine entrées, and a dessert, like berry tart or cheesecake. If they select the Steak Russell – “sliced tenderloin, sautéed wild mushrooms, with spiked baby carrots and our potatoes Anna” – as their entrée, the whole set is $36.
That’s only $4 more than ordering the Steak Russell by itself, and Salvatore’s prix fixe entrées are full-sized. The meal would cost less than a $38 filet mignon.
It’s a hugely popular deal at the restaurant, Salvatore said: “It probably equates to about 50 percent of our business,” with 500 to 600 over the course of a weekend. Many of those eaters come from the Garden Place Hotel, owned by the same family, which offers guests a $70 Salvatore’s voucher for $55.
The prix fixe is for “people on a budget who want to experience a great night out, just get away,” Salvatore said, “and we want to give that to them.”
If you want to experience the prix fixe, you often have to arrive at the restaurant’s convenience. At 31 Club (31 Johnson Park, the31club.com, 332-3131), a prix fixe is available from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, three courses for $35. It includes a choice of soup or salad, entrées like a stuffed chicken breast or cider-brined pork chop, and dessert.
Daniel Johengen, chef-owner at Daniel’s (74 Buffalo St., Hamburg, daniels-restaurant.com, 648-6554) offers one from Tuesday to Thursday, three courses for $32. That might be butternut squash ravioli with sage brown butter and dried cherries, plus horseradish crusted salmon with garlic mashed potatoes and leek cream sauce, plus profiteroles with caramel ice cream and chocolate sauce.
“It’s the same salmon, the same sauce, just a little bit smaller portion,” Johengen said. “To be honest, some of the older people, they prefer that. It’s not the money. I have some people, they can afford a $500 bottle of wine, but they get the prix fixe because it’s a perfect amount of food for them. My food’s fairly rich, and between the three courses it’s plenty for lots of people.”
At Rue Franklin (341 Franklin St., ruefranklin.com, 852-4416), the prix fixe is $32-$34 for three courses, Tuesday through Thursday. Chef-owner Corey Kley, who took over the venerable French restaurant last year, said the prix fixe menu’s value to his restaurant is about more than money.
“We do change our menu four times a year, but if that was all we were thinking about, the kitchen would get pretty stagnant,” he said. “Now every single week, we need to come up with four different ideas.”
A sample menu might allow a guest to dine on a salade riche of mixed greens, mango, foie gras and sugar snap peas, followed by duck confit with Dijon mustard and Brussels sprouts, and almond gâteau with apricot sabayon for dessert.
At Rue Franklin, the prix fixe might be where some of the most creative dishes appear. “We can actually play with the prix fix more than we can with the seasonal menu,” said Kley. “It’s a way of keeping your kitchen staff focused and thinking of new ideas, and keeping the guests intrigued about the restaurant.”
At Mike A’s at the Lafayette (391 Washington St., mikealafayette.com, 253-6453), Chef Mike Andrzejewski pointed out another benefit his prix fixe customers see: speed.
“It not only offers a better value, it’s really a time saver if somebody’s going to an event,” he said. “It cuts down on their choices and makes it possible for the kitchen to get them their meal faster. That’s another consideration for people who are staying downtown after work and going to the game or theater later.”
Mike A’s offers three courses for $40, Tuesday through Thursday. Say, onion soup croquette with braised oxtail, grilled hanger steak with white asparagus, and “chocolate air” for dessert.
Andrzejewski said his prix fixe even offers full-sized servings. “It’s normal-sized food, made with the same techniques – we’re not cutting corners on quality or the amount of work we put into them,” he said. The surroundings, the service, everything else is the same for prix fixe customers, he said.
“It is a promotion, but it’s not cheapening anything.”