The opening of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in 1971 marked the beginning of a revolution in American restaurant cuisine—from then on, fresh, locally grown and organic ingredients were the bricks and mortar of a first-rate meal. But eating fresh-from-the ground seasonal fare can get awfully expensive in this town. Luckily, the students at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts are helping to change all that.Friday Night Dinners at the school’s restaurant draw a shrewd set of diners looking to score a lush four-course dinner for only $34. And while the meals are completely vegetarian, the food is hardly frail. Last week, guests tucked into dishes like gumbo z’herbes with wild rice cakes and roasted mirliton (a.k.a. chayote) with smoky black-eyed peas, pan-fried grits and Southern greens. The restaurant doesn’t serve booze, but bringing your own bottle of vino along feels right at the Natural Gourmet, where everyone sits together at beautifully laid, communal tables. Friday Night Dinners are also more authentically European than most of the city’s other prix-fixes, which boast Continental accents and $200 tabs. Said Merle Brown, the institute’s V.P. and director of admissions: “It’s very festive, very friendly, and you’re meeting people from not only all over the city, but from various parts of the country who have heard about the dinners …. Just be sure to make a reservation at least a week or two in advance!” Natural Gourmet Institute, 48 West 21st Street, www.naturalgourmetschool.com
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