Diners pay big bucks for one-time dinners

One-time events have become entrenched in Pittsburgh’s dining culture and they’re pretty expensive. Billed as urban suppers, farm dinners or feasts, they sell depending on who’s cooking, who’s going, the setting and the scene. At times less intimate than a tasting menu at a restaurant, these dinners can look more like catering with better food. 

In some cases, food isn’t even the selling point.

At Carrie Furnace on June 22, E2 and Round Corner Cantina will host a dinner that’s $125 a person and requires diners to sign a waiver to attend the event in the former blast furnace in Rankin. It’s the first dinner from Big Table events, a series that will set-up in dramatic locations around the city.The Showclix Web link notes the dinner is family-style destination dining, with no mention of the number of courses, the dishes, or ingredients beyond that they will be locally-sourced. 

Ranging from $90 to $190 for standard events and up to $350 for charity dinners, dinners cost about the same as and sometimes more than a tasting menu, a dining experience focused on cuisine and service. At Eleven in the Strip District, it’s $45 for three courses and $65 for five courses and $25 for wine pairings. It’s about the same as the price of dinner at Notion in East Liberty.

Single events can sell out in Pittsburgh because they’re a viable alternative to the kind of dining that’s happening in larger cities, where restaurants such as Alma in Los Angeles have gone to a tasting menu-only format that’s $95 per person and an additional $55 for a drink pairing.

As much as Pittsburgh touts its growth, this market is not supporting such food-focused restaurants that command more than $100 a head because the city does not have the density and this kind of dining is not a priority.

Case in point: In Allegheny County last month, only one upscale restaurant opened -- Altius in Mount Washington. The other new food establishments include a handful of ethnic restaurants, a bottle shop, a craft brewery, a Wendy’s and Bottom Dollar. In the meantime behind the scenes this spring, a couple of respected restaurants have been courting new partnerships because lone chef-owners are not making enough money to pay bills.

Abandon the dining room

Besides perhaps the price for diners, there’s nothing wrong with events. They’re great in that they allow chefs to bend the traditional dining format, which they’re doing more often as they gain confidence and national recognition. 

"Chefs here are getting more comfortable with what they do,“ said former chef-owner of Salt of the Earth, Kevin Sousa. ”They are traveling and dining out in other cities, and they’re realizing they can do it as well or better.“ As one of the most ambitious restaurateurs in the city, Mr. Sousa has offered tasting menus and events at Salt and as he prepares for the opening of Superior Motors in Braddock in 2015.

Events also let chefs focus on design and location as much as food. Mr. Sousa cited his dinner last year for Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurants party, for which 10 people were chosen as guests at an extravagant, seven-course dinner at The Warhol Museum. 

Cult of personality

Events also give chefs the opportunity to earn recognition beyond the restaurant. They can feed the cult of personality reinforced by social media, glossies and sites such as eater.com. And events allow diners to interact with staff more than they would in the restaurant. 

They’re an opportunity for chefs to collaborate. Justin Severino of Cure in Lawrenceville cited Tarver King, chef at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Va., who cooked with him for an event last year. 

"I learn so much when I cook with that guy,“ he said. 

Mr. King was also a James Beard-nominee this year for ”Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.“ He will come to Pittsburgh this fall as part of the Cure’ated Dinner Series with Bryan Voltaggio of ”Top Chef Season 6“ and chef-owner of Range in Washington, D.C., and Volt in Frederick, Md.

The series runs through the fall and will include collaborations with chefs from Austin, Boston and Philadelphia.

What the market can bear

Mr. Severino’s collaboration dinners are $135 per person, which include wine pairings, tax and tip. They’re held at the restaurant or at White Oak Farm in Hampton and Indiana Townships, owned by Nic DiCio of Casa Reyna and Reyna Foods in the Strip. Mr. Severino said all of his dinners that seated between 50 to 100 people sold out last year. This year’s sales are on the same track.

He said that event prices fall within that of a meal at the restaurant, where there’s often a wait for a table. 

Mr. Severino’s events aren’t the only ones filling seats. Single-event dinners are selling out elsewhere, too, such as the $350 charity dinner for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden with star chef Thomas Keller as the guest at the Duquesne Club this past week. And over half the season is sold out at Churchview Farm in Baldwin Borough, the 35-seat dinners that feature chefs from restaurants such as Dish on the South Side, Spoon in East Liberty and Root 174 in Regent Square. Tickets are $90 apiece. 

Mr. Sousa said he considers these fair prices, especially when it comes to charity dinners. The trend shows how the city’s dining scene is changing, he said.

"There are so many things now that factor into how much people are willing to pay for dinner.“

For diners craving what’s new and chefs who want to fill seats, a well-orchestrated, one-time event is a sure thing for now.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart


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