The cold night air echoes with the scratches and clicks of shoes on pavement, creating a rushed percussion beneath choruses of restaurant-bound Ann Arborites. Inside, waiters pronounce the evening’s courses to packed tables. Full glasses and steaming plates warm up diners amid clinking silverware and conversation. It’s Restaurant Week in Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor Restaurant Week

Jan. 16 through 21
Various locations around Ann Arbor
$12 lunch, $25 dinner

“It’s one week of one priced dining,” said Maura Thomson, the executive director of the Main Street Area Association. Beginning Jan. 16, the biannual event will showcase 41 restaurants, each offering a menu that includes a fixed lunch price of $12 and a three-course dinner menu for $25. Sava’s, The Chop House and The Blue Nile are among the participating restaurants offering specialized menus.

Although it’s well established, the event has been around for less than two years. According to Thomson, the first Restaurant Week was held in June 2009 when a local restaurateur who had visited San Diego during its own Restaurant Week wanted to use the concept in Ann Arbor.

“It was sort of a grassroots effort — no budget,” Thomson said. “The first time around we had everything donated — printing services, graphic design services … We got 22 restaurants to participate.

“The point of Restaurant Week, for us, was using it as a vehicle to give people another reason to come downtown,” Thomson continued. “And as it turns out, it was a win-win, because not only did it bring people downtown — we filled tables.”

For some, the event serves as a first impression of what local restaurants have to offer. According to Hope Mleczko, a manager at Seva, the fixed price menu attracts people who may not otherwise dine at Ann Arbor restaurants.

“Sometimes people decide they really like it here and come back quite a bit,” she said.

But Thomson also sees Restaurant Week as something important for those who frequent the area.

“In a way it’s like saying thank you to those regular, local downtown supporters,” she said. “We want the people who are always coming to these restaurants to come in and say, ‘Hey, this is a great deal and I appreciate this.’ ”

As eager foodies swarm downtown Ann Arbor next week, restaurants plan to carefully maintain a worthwhile dining experience.

“We just want to make sure that the dishes are delicious and representative of the food we usually serve, but also things that don’t take a lot of effort on the spot,” Mleczko said.

To create this experience, there is an artful balance between upholding quality service while still infusing dishes with flavor one can relish. The focus on this equilibrium is what makes Restaurant Week successful.

“It’s not just about coming down and having dinner or coming down and purchasing something,” Thomson said. “It’s about coming downtown, walking on our sidewalks, under the lights, amongst other people … it’s all about this entire experience versus just one interaction.”

In the future, Thomson would like Restaurant Week to be similarly attractive to participants on a larger scale, reaching visitors from Indiana and Chicago.

“I’d like Restaurant Week to become a week where Ann Arbor really becomes a destination,” she said.

But for now, Restaurant Week is focused on showcasing local flavor and providing savory experiences for those who attend.

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