EAST MANATEE -- As tourists head home and school begins, tables become empty at local restaurants. To prevent a lull in profits during the slow months of August and September, restaurateurs must either come up with smart marketing strategies or simply sit tight until the holidays.
So Culinaria, a two-week celebration of restaurants across Manatee County put together by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, couldn't come at a better time.
The event, scheduled for Sept. 14-28, will drive more business and provide an opportunity for locals to ditch their Lean Cuisines and try offerings from nearly 30 local restaurants.
"We wanted to do something that would help out the restaurants while making an economic impact," said Debbie Meihls, executive manager for BACVB. "We've got great chefs here and local cuisine."
Chefs in East Manatee are putting the finishing touches on their three-course prix fixe menus, which will start at $15 for lunch and $25 for dinner.
Michael Auer, owner of Michael John's Restaurant in Bradenton, finished his menu Friday night.
To start, diners can choose between three salads: a "dirty Caesar," a house or a pear and goat cheese medley.
Next is a choice of petite center cut filet, chicken marsala, sauteed blue crab cakes or potato-crusted Alaskan cod.
For dessert, Auer is whipping up banana cake with coconut frosting. And diners can sip on pomegranate margaritas.
These two concoctions come from a Southern Living test kitchen. The magazine, a Culinaria partner, provided recipes representative of the area that chefs could incorporate into menus.
Over at Cedar Reef Fish Camp in Venice and Bradenton, the seafood-heavy menu is also ready to go.
"The best grouper I've had is out of this Gulf," said owner Dean Donnelly, who is including many local ingredients on his menu.
Praline cream cheesecake, another Southern Living recipe, will be served for dessert. But Donnelly hasn't practiced that one just yet.
"I know how to make cheesecake, so it's not really a big issue," he said.
Donnelly is looking forward to the event, as it will bring more business to his Bradenton location, which has only been open for four months.
The menu at Perida Golf and Country Club in Bradenton is perfected. For lunch, diners can slurp a shrimp and chorizo soup followed by a salmon BLT and a lemon drop square with strawberry compote.
And at the Polo Grill in Lakewood Ranch, gaudy-sounding items like a golden flax and chia seed crusted salmon decorate the dinner menu.
Each diner should pick up a Culinaria passport that's available at the restaurants for stamping.
When a passport has been stamped 12 times, the diner can enter it in a drawing to win a trip to New York City.
Ultimately, the hope is that Culinaria will become an annual event that the public will look forward to, Meihls said.
"After this, we'll look at the restaurants' responses," she said. "Hopefully we see an uptick in traffic."
For more information, visit www.bradentongulfislands.com/culinaria.
Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.