Every fall, Santa Cruz restaurants bustle with visitors new and old, each of them eager to savor an affordable three-course meal.

The annual Santa Cruz Restaurant Week (SCRW) returns this Oct. 2-9. SCRW invites a variety of local restaurants to design a $25 three-course menu, intended to offer guests an affordable fine dining experience.

Participating locations include restaurants from downtown Santa Cruz to Davenport to Aptos and beyond. In order to be involved with SCRW, the chosen restaurants must serve dinner, must offer full table service and an average three-course dinner at the restaurant must usually cost at least $30.

One of SCRW’s central missions is to “celebrate the rich culinary community of the Santa Cruz county,” said SCRW event coordinator Lily Stoicheff. “SCRW was created partly so people could enjoy an experience at fine dining restaurants that they may consider outside of their budget under normal circumstances and to be motivated to visit restaurants they haven’t tried before.”

First started in 2009 by the publication Santa Cruz Weekly, SCRW is funded by the participating restaurants, volunteer hours and community sponsors. These sponsors include OpenTable.com, Mapleton Radio and Metro Silicon Valley, among others. The team behind SCRW uses these funds to run promotions and advertising for the event.

While the format for SCRW has remained the same for the past five years, the number of participating restaurants has increased since its inception. In 2011, SCRW hosted 24 restaurants, and this year’s event will see 32 restaurants involved.

“One of the ways this event is unique is it allows fine dining restaurants in Santa Cruz County to promote as a group,” Stoicheff said. “SCRW is also valuable because it fills participating restaurants during the off-season.”

At the same time as it unifies the various dining cultures of Santa Cruz, the week is also an opportunity for restaurants to serve specialty items they haven’t offered before.

“This year we’re doing something extraordinary,” said downtown restaurant Chocolate owner David Jackman. “Almost everything on our menu are items we don’t normally sell. We’re doing a tribute to our sister restaurant in Italy. One of our items is the appetizer Picchipàcchio — a sweet and sour eggplant antipasto with sundried tomatoes, both organic and sprinkled with toasted almonds, which is a traditional southern Italian specialty.”

In addition to offering specialty dishes that are usually unavailable during the year, restaurants involved with SCRW tend to draw new regulars during the week.

“SCRW really speeds things up,” said Walnut Avenue restaurant Soif wine director John Locke. “It makes our whole place hoppin’ and electric, there’s just a more frenetic energy going around. But our restaurant functions best when it’s full, so we’ve enjoyed the experience.”

According to Locke, this upcoming week has been an attempt to urge Santa Cruzans to taste new dishes and explore a dining culture they may not have been familiar with before.

“SCRW has been primarily an effort to get some new customers in here,” Locke said. “And it definitely has attracted new people to this restaurant, and it has also brought people who aren’t used to dining, who don’t go out to eat very often. We found that SCRW really pushed people to try things out of their previous realm of experience.”