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, 20-percent-off-the-total-check,20-bucks-off-checks-over-50-bucks,buy-one-menu-item-get-one-at-equal-or-lesser-value-free special.
Yup, I can sniff out just about any restaurant's summer promotion from my own backyard. This year, it seems, they're more pervasive than ever, thanks to a lousy economy. 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 the three-dollar create-your-own pizzas at Bistro Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale. 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; ditto for the new Capone's in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Others are featuring high-end items at decreased price points. Tropical Acres in Fort Lauderdale is offering its annual $10.95 prime rib dinner. 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, 'cept 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 I'd say such a specimen would be 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.
Frankly, it's pretty obvious to anybody who has ever tried to chow down even half that weight of Homarus americanus 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 takehome encounter: Does one prepay if he will be devouring the leftovers the next day?
Of course, there's a catch that could prove as painful as a twist from a pincer claw: In many cases, you must at least mention, if not actually present, the advertisement to get the special. Those are pretty taxing memory skills, especially if you've been imbibing.
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 deal is good only "with the purchase of two beverages" (ostensibly of the alcoholic kind). One-dollar sushi nights typically take place only on Mondays and Tuesdays. Two-fer offers sometimes have a price caveat, like the $8 cap at San Loco in Fort Lauderdale or the $8.95 cutoff at Jalapeno's Mexican Kitchen in Plantation and its new spot in Pembroke Pines.
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Still, no matter how little the deals cost or how much food they serve up, 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 slow summer months? Gods know we could all use a laugh at gastronomy's expense now and then.
For instance, at home-meal-replacement restaurants like the Swiss Chalet in Fort Lauderdale, why not the census special: Drive through in an SUV with a pair of kids (one boy, one girl) and a dog in the back and get 2.2 meals for the price of one? And if at least one of the kids is wearing a grass-stained soccer uniform, receive a complimentary dessert.
There's also the incentive, harking back to the days when banks gave away toasters to those who opened new accounts and supermarkets kept track of the customers who shopped in their aisles. Restaurants can coordinate door prizes in reference to their names: Redfish Bluefish in Hallandale might want to invest in an original Dr. Seuss painting that some lucky customer could win just by walking in. Or places such as Pearl by the Sea in Hallandale Beach and White Diamond Burger in Fort Lauderdale could do something similar to Burger King and McDonald's: give away toys tied to the animated movie du jour. For sure, a jewel nestled on top of a spoonful of caviar or hidden in a bag of fries would be a sure-fire-and-ice draw -- happy meals for girls who constantly crave a new best friend. And any restaurant could hand out a booby prize of cold turkey to patrons who ignorantly ask for ashtrays.
At the very least, chefs and restaurateurs could stop paying lip service to how much they admire and really enjoy working with one another. That's a bunch of blah-blah-blech. Say 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 appetite stimulus.