August has become an important time on Houston's culinary calendar as over 200 restaurants raise money for the Houston Food Bank during Houston Restaurant Weeks. While that event's popularity remains undiminished — it raised over $1.6 million last year — the structure doesn't work for every establishment. This year, three Houston restaurants, Mark's American Cuisine, L'Olivier and Tony Mandola's are trying to capitalize on diners' charitable impulses by offering special menus but not participating in HRW.
Opting out of restaurant weeks offers restaurants a few advantages. First, each establishment gets to choose both which charity receives its donation and how much it donates. Also, the restaurant don't have to conform to HRW's $20 lunch, $35 or $45 dinner price structure.
For example, Mark's offers a three-course, $29 lunch menu and a six-course, $75 tasting menu at dinner. The restaurant is donating $5 at lunch and $10 at dinner to SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young, which is supported by Houston Astros star outfield George Springer.
As for L'Olivier, the French restaurant — famously kicked out of HRW in 2014 for offering a different menu to diners than the one it submitted to the event's website — will donate 10 percent of its sales at lunch and dinner to a different charity every day. The big caveat is that diners must specifically mention the day's charity when making a reservation in order to participate in the giving. Catastrophic Theatre is the beneficiary for dinner Saturday night (August 8).
Whether these independent efforts are enough to convert August from being primarily devoted to Houston Restaurants Week into a more generic "Houston Restaurant Charity Month" (a label that will obviously need better branding if it's going to take off) remains to be seen. At least diners are getting a choice, and that's always a good thing.