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RESTAURANTS TURN TO SPECIAL EVENTS, ENTERTAINMENT TO LURE HUNGRY PATRONS

A meal isn't the only thing Western New Yorkers have in mind when they go to a restaurant these days. They're looking for a bonus.

Dinner and a free ride to the theater. Dinner and a wine class. Dinner and a movie.

Maybe simple sustenance isn't enough any more.

The local restaurant world is full of offers to make your dinner choice more enticing. And that's not even mentioning early-bird meals, where prices are reduced if patrons come in before 6 p.m. Or coupons that offer discounts. Or buy-one-get-one-free deals.

All the better to get people into the doors.

"The days are over when you can just say, 'Hey we have good food.' There are too many good restaurants out there. You have to raise the bar," said Mike DePue, chief operating officer and sommelier of Ultimate Restaurants, whose Bacchus restaurant on Chippewa Street will present a special Champagne dinner next week featuring the bubblies of select estates.

The menu will feature dishes like Maine Lobster on Spinach Risotto with Vanilla Beurre Blanc and a different Champagne with every course. The cost is $75 a person.

Sometimes, entertainment provides a promotion opportunity. For example, Magruders in Depew cooperates with the Lancaster Opera House. If you have tickets, the restaurant will provide dinner for two for $25.

Ilio DiPaolo's in Blasdell offers customers a discounted dinner if they have tickets to the nearby Regal Cinema. "The key is to keep people coming into the restaurant, to keep things in motion," said Dennis DiPaolo.

One of the most ingenious restaurant/entertainment deals to come down the pike in a while is the Harry's Shea's Dinner Theater Package from Harry's Harbour Place Grille on Niagara Street. The restaurant's general manager Jerry McCarthy has teamed up with Scott Saxon, Shea's General Manager and Bill Yuhnke of Liberty Cab to make it work.

The customer comes to the restaurant with a ticket to Shea's that evening, parks his car in the restaurant lot for free and is offered a dinner with several choices. (He can even buy his ticket at the restaurant -- McCarthy is able to sell tickets at box office prices.)

After the meal, he takes a cab downtown to the Theater District (about a 10-minute ride if traffic is behaving) and is dropped off at Shea's Pearl Street entrance. That cab is waiting when the show is over and the couple are returned to the restaurant. Dinner and transportation costs $40 per person plus tax and tip. Tickets are extra, of course.

McCarthy admits he instigated the promotion as an alternate to theater district marketing and, he says, there's plenty of room to maneuver.

"Shea's holds more than 3,300 people," he says. "And by the time 2,000 tickets are sold, all the restaurants in the district are sold out."

Marriage of wine and food

Wine and food pairing dinners are amazingly popular promotions. That fact surprised Rosalie Morreale of La Marina Seafood Market & Grill on Hertel Avenue.

Monday evening, her restaurant hosted their first such meal - six courses featuring lobster bisque, special flown-in sea bass and a discussion of appropriate wines by a representative of Colony Liquor and Wine. The whole thing cost $50 plus tax and tip.

Morreale says 96 people attended, and there was a waiting list.

There's no question that wine continues to offer a good road to restaurant promotion. At Bacchus, DePue even holds weekly wine classes, featuring four different wine tastings at each. The classes last for an hour and are open by reservation only.

And they have a positive side. "Most people stay for dinner after that," DePue says. Sometimes, it's not wine but a certain food that brings people into a restaurant. Late last summer, Just Pasta on Bryant Street held a nine-course tomato dinner in which every course featured heirloom tomatoes from local growners Wendy Coleman and Tom Tower. Tomatoes turned up in consomme, in sorbet, in salads.

"But dessert was tiramisu," says owner Martin Danilowicz quickly. Danilowicz says the dinner (with appropriate wines, $60) was very popular. "But we thought the guests would be ready for a change by the end of meal.

The Roycroft Inn works with community organizations to offer wine dinners and community organization discounts, but wine and and beverage manager Dan Garvey likes to employ a personal touch, too. "We try to get newcomers to come in," said the president of the local restaurant association. "And we offer meals at a very low cost for their first dinner. We've even gone so far as to talk to real estate agents to target our audience."

Garvey is also the originator of the "Sliver Dessert" program, for which the Inn has received national acclaim. "If someone is not interested in a full dessert, we offer a smaller piece at half the price," he explains.

Sometimes he even sends a "Sliver Desert Platter" over to a newcomer in town.

All these techniques are good, according to a man who should know, Donald Spasiano of the Food Service Administration and Restaurant Management Departments at Erie Community College North.

These are examples of people trying to think outside of the box," he said. And, also, of thinking ahead. "There are big months coming up, with the holidays, but January is coming and things will be quieter," he said.

No holds barred

But do these promotions mean that restaurants are in trouble? "No," said the professor, "it's being pro-active."

Spasiano cites the example of two prominent local attorneys who saturate the market with ads that tug on the heartstrings.

"I don't think there are any holds barred any more," he said. "After all, we have a dwindling population. More and more slices have to come out of the pie.

"And it's a heck of a lot easier to bring people back to a restaurant than to get them in the first place," Spasiano added, along with a caution of sorts:

"One of the best promotional tools a restaurant has is a happy customer," he says.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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