The problem with most promotional prix-fixe menus - at least for eaters who aren't crazy about sweets - is the obligatory dessert. The majority of restaurants structure their three-course samplings around an appetizer, entree and dessert, which pretty much snookers the customer who'd prefer a soup or salad.
But at Plate of Nations, Rainier Valley's annual dine-out event, participants don't have to fear getting stuck with an unwanted crème brulee. Of the 10 restaurants along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South offering shareable meals over the next two weeks, only one is serving dessert. (St. Dames is debuting its spring bread pudding.) Otherwise, $15 or $25 buys a spread of the restaurant's best savories.
"It's a ton of options for all eaters," says Sarah Valenta of the coordinating MLK Business Association.
Now in its third year, Plate of Nations was designed to encourage eaters to try restaurants they might not otherwise consider patronizing because of concerns about language barriers, unfamiliar foods and cleanliness standards. By nearly all standards, the project's succeeded: In 2011, 90 percent of participants reported they visited the neighborhood specifically for the event.
"People have been thrilled to be welcomed into these restaurants," Valenta says, describing the program as taking "what's delicious to a certain culture and translating it to another one."
Valenta works with restaurants to develop menus which aren't too challenging. At Karama, for example, guests are served a pasta dish which reflects the Italian colonization period of Somalia's history. But they're also served a goat stew that Valenta calls "super fragrant and very traditional."
"I think most people would love it," she says.
This year, Plate of Nations is introducing a passport program. Diners who receive stamps at all 10 of the featured restaurants will be entered in a drawing for a Kindle Fire. Diners who complete half of the restaurants on the list are eligible to win a $50 gift certificate to a neighborhood restaurant.
When Plate of Nations last year gave away gift certificates through its Facebook site, all of them were redeemed. But that's the only evidence to suggest that event attendees are returning to the restaurants they try.
"We're trying to find a way to measure that, because that was a piece we were missing last year," Valenta says. "We have been very pleased by all the encouragement and great feedback."
What's also known is that the host restaurants, which are carefully screened for food quality and ability to handle crowds, enjoy the event.
"Most people we approach just love it," Valenta says. "They really want to share with the community."
Plate of Nations begins Sunday and runs through Apr. 6 at Original Philly's, Café Ibex, Bananas Grill, Rainier BBQ, Karama, St. Dames, Thai Palms, Olympic Express, Deo Valente and Joy Palace. No reservations are required, and complete menus are available here.