As many longtime Charlotteans know, if you’re looking for the right time to try that restaurant that’s been on your radar but remains just out of your price range, Queen’s Feast is the time to strike.
Moving into its 11th year, the biannual Queen’s Feast, better known as Charlotte Restaurant Week, celebrates its first iteration of 2019 from Jan. 18-27. Since its inception, Queen’s Feast founders Bruce and Jill Hensley have spearheaded the event, connecting Charlotte residents with affordable three-course meals and introducing countless folks to the city’s thriving food scene.
Back in 2007, before the idea was even half-cooked, there were only about 20 versions of restaurant week across the country. Bruce and Jill were running Hensley Fontana, a public relations and marketing firm they founded in 1985, when one of Bruce’s clients suggested he look into starting a restaurant week in Charlotte. He had never heard of the event, but the idea grabbed him immediately.
Working off of the blueprint of Denver, Colorado’s restaurant week, the Hensleys launched the first Queen’s Feast with 42 participating restaurants in July 2008.
Then financial disaster hit when the economy tanked later that year, and it looked as though Queen’s Feast would be a one-hit wonder.
“Restaurants started closing and they were dying and they were hurting, because all the corporations cut their expense accounts and nobody was going out and nobody was spending money. So the restaurants were really, really dying,” Bruce said. “We are a for-profit entity so we were not going to do it the following January of 2009, and then the restaurants started coming to us and asking us to do it because they were hurting so bad.”
Despite losing American Express as sponsor and cutbacks from media partner Charlotte Observer, the January 2009 restaurant week was a success.
“To make up for the shortfall of support and sponsorship and partnership, we had to more than triple the price of the entry fee for the restaurants. We thought that was going to be our death,” Bruce said. “But it wasn’t. The lousy economy was our springboard to success.”
Since then, the event has grown in participants and popularity. This year, 137 restaurants in nine counties will be taking part.
“Last I checked, there were over 150 restaurant weeks across the country now,” Bruce said. “So it’s a concept that pretty much took off, and we were fortunate enough to be sort of on the ground floor, since there were about two dozen when we began [planning] in 2007.”
The benefits of Queen’s Feast go two ways; the diners and restaurants reap the rewards of 10 days of culinary bargains.
For restaurants, it’s a jump start for sales in a season when people are less likely to venture out for dinner. After paying a $1,000 entry fee, the various eateries receive priceless promotions and marketing through Hensley Fontana. Furthermore, it’s a chance to inject new concepts into the Charlotte dining market.
For diners, it’s a chance to sit down at a spot that they wouldn’t normally, for a fraction of the price. Each participating restaurant offers at least one three-course meal at either $30 or $35 a pop, with many offering additional special menu options. Many restaurants run their Queen’s Feast menus concurrent with their regular menus and find that not all diners want to stick to the deals.
The Hensleys carefully vet each restaurant that applies to offer up their own version of a Queen’s Feast. They look to ensure that not only can each restaurant offer a mid-to-upscale meal at a $30 or $35 price point, but that they can also handle a high volume of diners for the duration of the event. Bruce knows diners will recognize quickly what’s a good deal and what’s not, so patrons need to see that they’re receiving a steep discount for high-quality fare.
Ultimately, Queen’s Feast is about restaurants bringing in new customers and making lifelong regulars.
“That’s what I hope the dining public gets out of it, a true experience for what the restaurant is, who they are, what their concept is,” Bruce noted. “And to come back.”
Cajun Queen, an Acadian restaurant on 7th Street in the Elizabeth neighborhood, has participated in Charlotte Restaurant Week since its beginning.
Situated in an old house like many businesses in the neighborhood, Cajun Queen has been around since 1985, and owner Tim Freer hasn’t changed much on the menu since those early days.
As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Freer and his chef have made tweaks here and there, like taking pork chops off the Queen’s Feast menu and replacing them with a delicious pasta dish that’s quicker to cook, but the special event menu has always included the dish Cajun Queen is best known for: crawfish étouffée.
The roux-based sauce is hot and spicy, includes cooked crawfish and served over rice. It’s the restaurant’s No. 1 seller throughout the year. For dessert, Cajun Queen is doling out key lime pie.
Cajun Queen won’t be operating any differently than they normally do for Queen’s Feast, Freer said. Customers can expect live music nightly as they would any other time of the year, this time joined by a special menu, of course.
“People ask us if we do anything special for Mardi Gras, for instance. I’m like, ‘Well, every day is Mardi Gras,’” Freer said. “It’s hard for us because we do live music every night of the week already. We already have this vibe that we’re looking for. We’re not looking to change it, we’re looking to expose all the people that haven’t seen it to that vibe.”
While nearby restaurants like Cajun Queen continue on as Queen’s Feast mainstays, Charlotte Restaurant Week continues to expand to cover ground well beyond the city limits.
As far as 18 miles west of Center City Charlotte, in McAdenville, a new restaurant is preparing for its first year of restaurant week.
Table & Market opened in December 2017. Owner John Bailey wanted to to iron out the kinks at his new restaurant before jumping into an event like Queen’s Feast. It was important to Bailey that when Charlotte diners ventured out to Gaston County to visit his restaurant, Table & Market made a good first impression.
“I grew up in this area and have seen Queen’s Feast expand since its inception and I knew that it was something that I wanted to get involved in,” Bailey said. “We waited purposefully ‘til we had been open a year and felt comfortable with dealing with that crowd and having people come from, say, the Charlotte area, as opposed to the Gaston County area. So we wanted to make sure that when we did it, we did it right.”
From the looks of things, Bailey and his team have all the right ingredients for Queen’s Feast. On the menu for Charlotte Restaurant Week, a locally-made pimento cheese from Blessed With Zest foods leads into a steak, chicken or fish offering for dinner. Patrons will have the variety and upscale dining experience they’re looking for at Queen’s Feast.
At the end of the day — or week, if you will — it’s not just about the sales for Bailey. Even though Table & Market is stationed a bit further than most Charlotteans are usually willing to travel, he hopes diners get more than just high-quality food at a discounted price.
“What we want people to be able to do is not only experience the food from a classically trained chef, but also to be able to experience some of the history that we have here in town and get to know McAdenville for something beyond just Christmastown and coming over here in December to ride through the lights,” Bailey said of the town’s reputation for its residents’ synchronized holiday decorations.
The ever-trending rise in food costs paired with the not-always-necessary expense of eating out — especially so soon after the holidays — are the sort of challenges that Bruce and Jill tackle when they plan Queen’s Feast. But over the last decade, diners have continuously shown they’re willing to use this time to leave their culinary comfort zones and take advantage of the slashed prices, enjoying a three-course meal they may not expect to find in their neighborhoods — or miles away even.
“What we really encourage people to do is to use Charlotte Restaurant Week to get out of your typical routine, get out of your neighborhood, go across the county, go to another city, try a new concept,” Bruce said. “The investment is not nearly what it could be outside of restaurant week. And that’s what we use it for — my wife and I use it to go try places we never tried before. That’s the fun in it.”