Whether you're considering opening a restaurant or you've been running one for some time, at some point you will think about whether a prix fixe menu is right for you. Like anything in business, there are cons, but there are a number of different ways that a fixed-price setup might work for your business.
Here are a few to consider:
1. All fixed price, all the time
Allowing diners nothing but a prix fixe menu has clear upsides and obvious downsides. On the one hand, this system gives the restaurant owner a much clearer forcast of the price per head; with the exception of menu supplements and the like—a table's food expenditures are set from the start. That said, the high advertised ticket price may scare off some diners who don't want to make a financial commitment from the start.
Perhaps for that reason, many places that employ a fixed price policy are the sorts of destination restaurants—critically acclaimed and expectedly costly—where the diner already knows he or she will lay down a significant amount of money before the night's end. Chicago's Alinea, Yountville, California's The French Laundry, and New York's Eleven Madison Park all serve exclusively fixed-price menus. For a restaurant of this caliber, diners are essentially seeking out the skill of a chef and the experience of a restaurant, rather than individual dishes; it's logical that the chef should retain control of the food that the kitchen serves, and know—given the amount of money they're likely to outlay on ingredients and labor—how much is coming in the door.
And at this level of dining, looking at a prix fixe menu may seem the better deal. When you're paying $295 per head at Thomas Keller's Per Se, you're putting aside that sum for a culinary experience, an evening of tasting and indulgence; whereas when you're paying $28 for a single plate of hearts of palm in Per Se's a la carte "salon room," you lose the context of that fine dining arc—and potentially start questioning whether that individual dish is worth what you're paying.
That said, less pricey restaurants can make it on a prix fixe-only basis, too. Manhattan's Torrisi Italian Specialties has had a fixed-price dinner menu (4 courses, $50) since its opening, its dishes changing nearly every night. The two chefs, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, emphasize the control it gives them, and the room for creativity. If they hit upon an idea they love, or receive a shipment of an ingredient they can't wait to use, that's what they'll serve—rather than just putting it on the menu as a special and hoping it sells.
2. Prix fixe and a la carte
It's an approach you'll see at many high-end restaurants that are a notch or two down in formality from those previously mentioned (New York's Gramercy Tavern and Cambridge, Mass.'s Craigie on Main come to mind; of course, any number of other fine restaurants, like Chicago's Blackbird, offer a fixed-price tasting menu in addition to the a la carte options.)
This approach may ease the fears of diners who don't want to shell out for a set-price menu, even though that may not work to theiradvantage. Some may feel more comfortable with a $15 appetizer, $29 entree, and $11 dessert than a $50 prix fixe menu—an expensive-looking number, even if it's the better deal.
If you are going the dual fixed price–a la carte route, make sure that you put sufficent thought into each side of the menu; even if you're counting on more people opting for one choice than another, there's no easier way to alienate potential repeat customers than to make them feel as if they made the "wrong" choice. And if there's any sort of tasting menu offered, whether or not it's the centerpiece of the menu, ensure that you're able to deliver a suitably impressive performance. A tasting menu should never be an afterthought.
3. Prix fixe lunches
It can be tough to attract customers at lunch; if you're neither a quick-service, sandwich-to-go establishment nor well-located for business lunches, you may have a hard time getting customers in the door. One way to ramp up your lunch business? An eye-popping deal of a fixed-price menu.
Jean Georges, Del Posto and many other highly esteemed New York restaurants offer lunch menus at less than a third the cost of their dinner service (the former, two courses for $32; the latter, three for $29; both include bread, amuses and after-dessert treats). On the less extravagant end, the fine Greek restaurant Kefi does a $9.95 soup and half-sandwich combo, an absolute steal for a sit-down restaurant; and Gramercy Tavern does the same deal for $14, an even steeper discount given the caliber of their cooking. If you're keeping the space open, with all the operating and labor costs that entails, it's a possible way to make your lunch business stand out.
4. Prix fixe specials
Even if you're not generally offering a fixed-price menu, there are a number of occasions when you might. On holidays when there's a ton of demand for eating out—Valentine's Day, New Years' Eve, Thanksgiving—it makes sense for many restaurants to switch to a fixed-price menu, both so that the kitchen can better manage and plan for the number of customers, and so that you're guaranteed to extract a certain amount of revenue from the tables you're turning (rather than having a spot taken up by a low spender or light eater, when you could make more off that seat).
But there are other reasons to do one-off prix fixe episodes as well. If you're in an area with a lot of food media coverage, special menus often gain a good deal of attention—whether it's an ingredient- or animal-focused special ("Come get 4 courses of Mangalista pig, Sundays only!"), a seasonal tasting ("Our summer vegetable menu will run from July 13-17"), or a thematic offering ("In honor of Cinco de Mayo, we're running a 3-course Mexican-themed menu all week").
Just remember that the point is the food, not the theme. If your chef has a way with Mexican flavors, gumbo or biscuits and fried chicken, then by all means, show those skills off. But offering a special menu just for the novelty appeal is likely to backfire. Make sure that what's on the plate backs up the idea.
5. Restaurant weeks
Cities and towns all across the country have started periodic "restaurant weeks" where a number of restaurants agree to offer special prix fixe menus for a short spell. For the diner, it's a way to experience restaurants that might otherwise seem out of their price range; for restaurants, it's a way to gain exposure and encourage advance reservations. However, too many spots use these sorts of promotions as a way to pawn off tired goat cheese salads and grilled salmon on customers who might take advantage of a "deal" without looking too closely at what's actually offered.
It may seem tempting to coast during these promotions, serving simpler, lower-cost plates to lock in as much of a profit as possible; but remember, the point of a restaurant week isn't just to fill seats—it's to show off your restaurant to potential repeat customers. Cutting corners may get you a few more dollars in the short term, but the real benefit comes in finding new patrons who'll remember you and come back.