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On any given night, ordering the rack of lamb at Old City's La Famiglia Ristorante would set customers back a hefty $82.

But this week, La Famiglia is serving up hundreds of portions of its signature lamb, along with its lobster ravioli appetizer and chocolate souffle for the bargain price of $30, as part of Philadelphia's third "Restaurant Week."

Restaurant Week -- which was started last fall in order to boost business for restaurant owners and draw diners to Center City -- is rapidly becoming a Philadelphia institution. By offering residents the opportunity to indulge in a three-course meal for a reasonable prix fixe at any of the 80 participating restaurants, the week is anticipated to draw thousands of customers to downtown Philadelphia.

"The original idea behind Restaurant Week was to spur business for the restaurants, since September is generally a slow time for them," said Laurel Perley, director of marketing and events for the Center City District, which is responsible for organizing the event. "It's a great way to get people going out to the restaurants, and it gives residents the chance to experience some of the city's best food for only a fraction of the usual cost."

Indeed, despite the bargain pricing, participating restaurants seem to be profiting from the event, evident in the tremendous success of the previous two Restaurant Weeks, which drew a combined 85,000 diners to participating restaurants and generated $4.2 million in sales.

"I have definitely noticed an appreciable increase in business," said Steve Loose, manager of El Vez, which is participating in the event for the second time. "It really helps us out, especially on our typically slower days, which have been absolutely packed this week."

For many restaurant owners, the hope is that the week will not only generate an immediate increase in sales, but also will develop and broaden the base of returning customers, thereby creating more long-term financial benefits.

"Restaurant Week is a great way to introduce my restaurant to new people," said Giuseppe Sena, manager of La Famiglia. "It's like advertising for me. I'm exposing my restaurant to a lot of people who typically wouldn't come here, and hopefully they will remember it and come back."

According to restaurant owners, thus far, the week has been very successful in drawing dozens of new customers.

"I've been here for 28 years, and I'm seeing faces that I've never seen before," Sena said. "We have over 160 reservations every night, and a lot of them are young people, people from the suburbs and students who have never been here."

In fact, the opportunity to sample some of Philadelphia's outstanding culinary creations for such a low price has lured hundreds of students from the confines of Penn's campus to Center City.

"Restaurant Week is awesome," College sophomore Laura Bierbower said. "I normally would wait until my parents were in town to eat at Alma de Cuba, but for $30, why would you wait?"

Despite Restaurant Week's demonstrated ability to both attract new diners and boost sales, most of Philadelphia's priciest four-star establishments, such as The Fountain at the Four Seasons and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel have declined to partake in the week for economic reasons.

"People usually spend $75 to $80 per person or more, so $30 is like nothing when you take into account food and labor costs," Sena said. "From an economic point of view, we're losing money, but if I lose money this week and then people come back and become regular customers, it was worth it."

Despite the non-participation of some establishments, the growing restaurant participation -- which has nearly doubled from 44 in the first Restaurant Week to 80 this week -- is indicative of the week's success both financially and in terms of Philadelphia's image.

"The week is a great way to entice people to stay in town and see Philadelphia as more than just a place to work," Perley said. "It definitely helps to boost the city's image as a tourist- and resident-friendly city."

Restaurant Week began on Sunday and will end on Friday.

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