02/13/2015 02:12 EST | Updated 04/15/2015 05:59 EDT

Prix fixe menus offer showcase for restaurants, value and variety for diners

TORONTO - Many Canadian restaurants are seeking to appeal to the taste buds and budgets of cost-conscious diners this winter with multi-course menu offerings.

Dedicated food events in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Halifax have featured hundreds of eateries offering limited-time prix fixe menus — some as low as $15. Meanwhile, many restaurants have made the appetizer/entree/dessert trio permanent fixtures.

Anthony Walsh, corporate executive chef of Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants in Toronto, said the prix fixe serves as an introduction to a restaurant and showcase of its skills and service.

"There's almost always a very value-oriented skew to it," said Walsh, who oversees the culinary direction of acclaimed restaurants Auberge du Pommier and Canoe.

"It's usually used in a way, be it pre-theatre or after theatre or sporting events ... built for speed, great value, get 'em in, get 'em out."

Enticing customers with a reasonably priced multi-course menu requires considerable work by restaurants mindful of their bottom lines.

Walsh recently oversaw prix fixe menus for 11 restaurants for Toronto's Winterlicious food event. It's a process months in the making in planning ingredients and ensuring costs are kept in check, which involves negotiating with suppliers to secure the best deals.

It also provides a great training ground for cooks who will rotate through different stations in the kitchen.

Walsh said they're creative with ingredients, such as making use of all parts of protein like whitefish, grinding the nose and tail into a mousse. They'll also try to augment sales with value-added deals like beverage specials.

While making money is important, Walsh said the goal during prix fixe events isn't strictly monetary.

"There's a huge value to exposing a new customer to what we do," he said. "If we haven't made a ton of money ... we know bloody well if we treat them the way we should treat them being in the hospitality business, you bet your bottom dollar at some point these people will be back.

"If it is just for 'Licious, so be it. But I guarantee it, if we had done our best and try to make that connection that we always do here ... I guarantee they will remember how they were treated, how delicious the food was."

Lucas Pavan, co-ordinator of Tourism Vancouver's Dine Out Vancouver Festival, said 277 restaurants participated in the 13th annual event — numbers that increase every year with no shortage of eateries wanting to take part. Some restaurants offer more than three courses for the set price, while others serve dishes family style.

Given the slowdown in tourist numbers in January and February, Pavan said the festival offers restaurants the chance to build their profiles and encourages diners to try or return to their establishments.

"Anecdotally from restaurants, they said to me that reservations were really high — much higher than they've seen in previous years," said Pavan.

"They attribute that to a number of factors: one, a refresh of our branding campaign as well as an improvement in the economy and people looking at being able to spend more money."

Montreal-based food blogger Jason Lee admits there is a distinct appeal about ordering from a prix fixe menu, including being able to sample from a variety of dishes when dining with a companion.

With fewer dishes on set menus, Lee said restaurants are more focused on key items which helps, in turn, to expedite service.

"Everything production-wise is going to be streamlined to get those dishes out there faster so that the kitchen has more time to spend on those specific dishes," said Lee, who has written about nearly 300 restaurants for his site Shut Up and Eat.

"I also like the fact that they're typically cheaper than ordering a la carte."

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