From left, Amber McDonald and Holly Bruns of Portland and Allison Carney of South Berwick laugh over dinner at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Even with the snowy, windy weather, Maine Restaurant Week got off to a promising start Tuesday night, according to customers and restaurant staff in Portland’s Old Port neighborhood.

“I like finally seeing some people out and about. We haven’t seen that in a while,” said Andrew Haynes of South Portland, a regular customer at Timber Steakhouse & Rotisserie on 106 Exchange St. who was marveling at his generously portioned steak tips entree, part of Timber’s $35 three-course event menu.

Haynes, like most of the customers at Timber, came specifically for its Restaurant Week menu, according to owner Noah Talmatch, who said he was pleased to have a mid-sized crowd on a Tuesday night in March.

Grilled Pork Ribeye is one of the specials for Restaurant Week at David’s Restaurant in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Restaurant week is win-win for the restaurants and the patrons,” Talmatch said. “It’s a way we can give back to our regular customers, and we get to show off our wares to new customers. It’s a good deal for people, too. They can get a five-star meal at a two-star price.”

The Maine restaurant industry has been battered since the start of the pandemic. But now, with COVID cases on the decline, “there’s a feeling of renewal, like we’re getting a fresh start, and Restaurant Week is so important for that,” Talmatch said.

“Every year, people get excited for Restaurant Week,” said Ryan Smith, bar manager at Eventide Oyster Co. on Middle Street. “People are optimistic this year, especially now that things are feeling a little more normal.”

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Eventide’s special for the event is a Scallop Waffle-Yaki – a playful twist on Japanese izakaya dishes – paired with Makku rice beer for $18, which takes advantage of the looser event format this year. Instead of offering a special three-course menu, participating restaurants may simply put together a special dish or two.

Event organizer Gillian Britt said the more relaxed guidelines came about because the pandemic has made it hard for restaurants to stay open at all, let alone gear up for Restaurant Week.

Customers at Eventide on Tuesday night were eager to show their support for Maine’s restaurants.

“We’re invested in the local business community,” said Amber McDonald of Portland, who came with two friends she works with at nearby Local Image Co.

“The restaurant scene is what makes Maine Maine,” she added, noting that she planned to enjoy the Restaurant Week menu at MK Kitchen in Gorham later in the evening.

At David’s in Monument Square, host Kathleen Parker said customers are buzzing about Restaurant Week already. “The nice thing is seeing notes on the reservations about people who are interested (in David’s Restaurant Week menu),” she said.

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“We had a decent lunch today, and tonight it’s already been mostly Restaurant Week orders,” said Cordelia Davies, sous chef at David’s.

Restaurant staffers expected that Restaurant Week crowds will grow significantly in the coming days. The event runs through Saturday, March 12.

“I checked the reservations for Saturday, and it’s already packed,” said Helaena Holmes, host at Timber.

“It usually starts off slow, then picks up toward March 5th or so,” Davies said, noting that general conditions are favorable right now. “COVID cases are starting to wane, and the weather is tolerable for this time of year.”

Nearly 60 restaurants are participating in Maine Restaurant Week this year. Britt said the event has also expanded its geographic footprint to include establishments in Arundel, Leeds and Rockport.

“There are people who tell me it’s their favorite time of year,” Britt said.

Talmatch called this year’s Restaurant Week a “godsend,” because he thinks it can help relieve the stress of pandemic restrictions and tense world events like the war in Ukraine.

“The timing couldn’t be better,” he said. “It’s the nicest thing right now. People can come out and enjoy good food at a restaurant, and it’s like they’re going back to a nicer time.”

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