SCHENECTADY — The region’s restaurants are sizzling as they head into the final stretch of Schenectady Restaurant Week.
The week-long event, which concludes Sunday, gives foodies the opportunity to enjoy gourmet meals that might ordinarily feel beyond their price range.
Each participating restaurant has a different special, a platform which can give chefs the ability to experiment, blending the accessible with the adventurous.
Frank Tardio, executive chef at Aperitivo Bistro, said the promotion offers an opportunity to spread his creative wings while still remaining firmly in the venue’s wheelhouse.
He pointed at the swordfish Milanese. Using the fish isn’t typical in Milanese-style cooking, where meat is coated in breadcrumbs before fried in oil.
For his eggplant lasagne, Tardio opted to throw patrons a curveball by using celery root bechamel, which he said adds an earthy bite.
His cauliflower Frito offers a blend of sweet and sour.
And fennel, his hallmark, occupies prime real estate in his strawberry shortbread.
“I like how it’s so versatile,” Tardio said. “You can do savory or sweet.”
Schenectady Restaurant Week began Monday, offering three-course meals for $25 at two-dozen restaurants in Schenectady, Glenville, Rotterdam and Scotia.
Downtown streets were bustling on Monday evening after Proctors Theatre unveiled their 2019-2020 subscription series.
As such, some restaurants said it was unclear to how much the uptick could be attributed to the week-long promotion.
Johnny’s Restaurant served 200 covers, up from the standard 110, said Brandon Brooks, general manager.
But feedback cards revealed many patrons did attend for Restaurant Week.
Increased visitation was indisputable Tuesday and Wednesday despite the frigid temperatures, restaurateurs said.
Pho Queen owner Gana Fuino said on Wednesday her phone has been ringing all week for reservations.
Across town, Pinhead Susan’s staffers noted a measurable increase in business.
“We’ve had massive reservations for Restaurant Week,” said manager Tony Sharifipour.
Like at Aperitivo Bistro, their chef created a specialized menu, which included shepherd's pie cakes, a beat-heavy Irish salad and “creamy drunken mushroom pork chops” replete with a dose of Jameson.
And the dining room at Water’s Edge Lighthouse Restaurant in Glenville was already doing brisk business early Wednesday evening.
“It just gets better as the week goes on,” said Joe Popolizio, general manager. “It almost feels like a week in August, but it’s March.”
George Blakeman, general manager of Mexican Radio, said several customers have called and specifically requested the Restaurant Week option, which offers both vegetarian and regular menus.
Any food-centric event that drives visitation downtown is a good thing, he said, citing the Schenectady Soup Stroll in January that saw the State Street venue log 1,110 people — including newcomers who have since returned.
Participants said the annual event, which is presented by the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation, the Capital Region Chamber and Discover Schenectady, is critical for not just adding a late-winter zap, but also expanding their business by activating a sense of culinary curiosity.
"As a family restaurant, 80 percent of our market is within 3 to 5 miles,” said Tops American Grill owner Evan Christou. “Restaurant Week extends that circle.”
Christou surveyed rivulets of patrons pouring into the Rotterdam mainstay early Wednesday evening.
It’s tough to say how many were regulars as opposed to newcomers, he acknowledged.
But 40 percent of diners this week have been ordering off the special menu.
“If we introduce ourselves to 100 people and get five new customers, it’s a benefit,” Christou said.
More Perreca’s Italian Kitchen resorted to turning people without reservations away Wednesday night.
Next door, customers poured into Cornells in Little Italy.
Glenville residents Kim Bellanger, Dawn Oliver and Grace Shillinglaw tucked into their meals at a streetside window as snow fell outside.
Restaurant Week, they said, was the draw.
“Would we have come out tonight?” Oliver said. “Probably not. It’s 10 degrees out.”
Oliver has long been a fan of food-themed weeks, and previous installments of Schenectady Restaurant Week initially drew her to Aperitivo and Johnny’s for the first time.
At Aperitivo, Liz Levine and Sue Teegarden reflected after finishing their meals.
The downtown workers consider themselves dialed into the local food scene.
But for them, this week's event provided an incentive to return to the Italian hotspot.
Levine, who lives in Schenectady, commented on the swordfish.
“It was new flavor combinations you don’t ordinarily see,” she said.
The pair said they planned on venturing out again before the end of the week.
Like others interviewed for this story, the pair agreed Schenectady’s dining scene is evolving.
“There’s a wider area of food options,” said Teegarden, who lives in Glenville.
Levine said the increased diversity lets chefs get more adventurous in their usage of fresh ingredients.
“It’s growing and much more diverse than it has been,” she said. “It’s much more appealing to an urban crowd.”
Blakeman, the Mexican Radio manager, agreed the landscape is growing more sophisticated, which allows the restaurant to tinker with unique concepts, adding a more authentic “oomph and spice” to traditional and authentic dishes like ropa vieja, a classic Cuban braise, and carnitas, the popular Mexican mainstay.
Brooks, the Johnny’s manager, grew up in Scotia and returned to the region after spending eight years working at what he estimated was 30 restaurants.
Schenectady wasn’t a food destination before.
But people are now coming downtown specifically to eat, he said. And that makes him feel good.
Aperitivo assistant restaurant manager Jason Tomaszewski said in Saratoga, when a restaurant opens, it usually portends the closure of another.
But that’s not the case in The Electric City, where the sky seems to be the limit for new venues.
“It’s a good sign,” Tomaszewski said. “For a while, it seemed like Troy had the juice. Now it seems like the juice has come back in our direction.”