Now that the scent of rotten mangoes has (mostly) ceased to waft across my yard, thanks to an early peak season, I have begun to detect other aromas in the air: the prix-fixe, all-you-can-eat, kids-eat-free, free-wine-with-entrée, early-birds-get-soup-or-salad, twenty-percent-off-the-total-check, twenty-bucks-off-checks-over-fifty-bucks, buy-one-menu-item-get-one-at-equal-or-lesser-value-free specials.
Yup, I can sniff out just about any restaurant's summer promotion from my own back yard. This year, it seems, thanks to an economy that has done little to reassure us we'll ever be able to send our kids to kindergarten -- let alone college -- they're more pervasive than ever. Indeed when it comes to the overripe fruit of the culinary scene, drinkers and diners have cheaper options than usual. There's the one-dollar sushi night at Sushi 'n' Thai in Hollywood and Fuji Hana in Kendall. Or chomp on two pizzas for the cost of one-and-a-half at Il Piccolo Café's sibling, called simply Piccolo, in North Miami.
I've even seen restaurants offering three-for-one prices, ranging from happy hour drinks to main courses. Go to any Max's Grille location and you can get bombed thrice as quickly for the cost of a single drink. At Texas Taco Factory in Coral Gables and Miami Beach, it's three tacos -- with the choice of soft or hard shell, no less -- for the same amount of bills.
Others are featuring high-end items at decreased price points. For $9.95 you can source the "market special," a pound of jumbo shrimp, at "Fico" Key West in Miami. Perhaps the most inflated deal is at the Lobster House in Sunrise, where you can salivate over quite a startling, if intermittent, offer -- a ten-pound Maine lobster, per availability, for a mere $59. Now I'm no homard expert, except when it comes to ripping into their recently molted bodies with bare hands and dropping tender flesh, lubricated by a tidal wave of drawn butter, down the esophageal hatch. But in lobster years, I'd say a decade of life would put such a specimen at about the size of the pile of legal papers on the desk of Martha Stewart's attorney. Dig into a ten-pounder and you might as well eat your own grandmother.
But of course there's a catch that could prove as painful as a twist from a pincer claw: In most cases you must at least mention, if not actually present, the advertisement in order to get the special. Those are pretty taxing memory skills, especially if you've been imbibing at Max's Grille.
Plus, you should always make sure to read the fine print, even if it means getting out the bifocals you swore you'd never wear. For example, at both Shooters and Chez Laurent in Fort Lauderdale, the buy-one-entrée-get-another-free is only good "with the purchase of two beverages" (read: alcoholic). One-dollar sushi nights typically only take place on Mondays and Tuesdays. Twofer offers sometimes have a price caveat, like the $5 cap at San Loco in Miami Beach. And, it should be noted, every person who samples that ten-pound lobster at Lobster House gets charged an additional $3.95. Frankly, it's pretty obvious to anybody who has ever attempted to chow down even half that weight of Homarus americanus, belonging to the family Nephropidae, that such an aged, enormous crustacean is meant to be a convivial item. Pretty pricey for what amounts to, "Hey, you going to finish that?" Not to mention the inevitable take-home encounter: Does one prepay for whoever will be devouring the leftovers the next day?
Finally we have the Miami Spice month of August to contemplate -- three-course meals at the area's finest restaurants for just under 30 bucks, for all 30 (31?) days. Some restaurateurs did so well with the package last year, during the Miami Spice inauguration, that they extended it then and have already initiated the bargain now, July be damned. Jonathan Eismann of Pacific Time is offering a triple dose of his menu classics -- for instance, the Peking-style duck pancake appetizer, followed by the Szechuan grilled fish with tempura sweet potatoes, and completed by tropical sorbet -- for $29. The recently installed executive chef at the Forge, Andrew Marc Rothschild, is presenting a "sneak preview" of his new menu, a three-course meal for $29.95. Chef Arturo Paz at Baleen in Grove Isle cribs the month-long promotion with his three-installation "Baleen Spice" bill, now available at both lunch ($19.95) and dinner ($29.95).
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Still no matter how little the deals cost or how much food they serve up -- and I will be taking advantage of my favorites at Pacific Time -- I can't help but think they're all a trifle boring. Why can't restaurateurs employ a little humor and imagination to attract customers during the slower summer months? Lord knows we could all use a laugh at gastronomy's expense now and then.
For instance, instead of kids-eat-free at family-friendly restaurants, why not the census special: If you come in with a pair of kids (one boy, one girl) and a golden retriever with a piece of a formerly white picket fence, covered with syrupy drool, from said dog's mouth, you get 2.2 meals for the price of 1. And if you pull up in an SUV, a complimentary dessert.
Some eateries can play off their names. Instead of the glass of wine (with purchase of dinner entrée) that Citronelle in Miami is currently offering, why not stock up on citronella candles and give them out as door prizes? Located almost right across the street, Magnum Lounge can get a light from the same wick and raffle off magnums of wine to lucky diners. The Mangos in Fort Lauderdale and Mango's in South Beach (unrelated restaurants) can be obvious about their giveaways, as can places like Bongo's Cuban Café in downtown Miami. A jewel in a bag of fries? It'd be like happy meals for the girl who needs a best friend. And any restaurant at all can hand out the booby prize of a cold turkey to anybody who ignorantly asks for an ashtray.
At the very least, chefs and restaurateurs can stop paying lip service to how much they really enjoy working with each other and admire their colleagues and embrace their competition and blah-blah-blech. You're a chef who truly feels the pull of community and industry? Team up and make a deal: Along with a check, instead of mints, serve your customers with a coupon for an appetizer or dessert at a rival eatery, and have that establishment return the compliment in kind. Now that's what I would call incentive -- for everyone involved.