Restaurant Week: How to Make Sure You're Getting a Good Deal

by  Christine Wei | Feb 17, 2014
Gourmet meal
Gourmet meal / triocean/iStock

At first glance, Restaurant Week might seem like a great way for travelers to try their destinations’ most beloved restaurants for less. The annual or biannual discount dining program typically offers three-course, prix fixe dinner in the $20-$40 range – and sometimes lunch for even less – at establishments that could typically set you back by more than $100 a meal. Alas, some restaurants will cut corners during this time, and the specials aren't always all that special. Here are some Restaurant Week pitfalls to watch for, and how to avoid them:

Common Traps

One of the most common criticisms of Restaurant Week is simply that the best restaurants do not or no longer participate. But we’ve enjoyed our fair share of delicious deals with great service in recent years – after some doing research. Once you find some promising restaurants, you want to make sure that meals there would indeed cost you much more on any other day. Some participating restaurants are less expensive to begin with, while others may have regular lunch prix fixe or dinner specials on slower nights that rival the Restaurant Week prices.

But perhaps even more important is confirming that your Restaurant Week meal will be up to the kitchen's typical standard. The first way to do this is to cross-reference the special menu with the usual one. If the menus aren’t on a restaurant’s website, check on the city’s official Restaurant Week page. Is there an overlap between main ingredients? Do some of the restaurant’s signature dishes appear on the Restaurant Week menu? If the menus are drastically different and Restaurant Week items are clearly of a lower quality and cost, it might not be worth it. And, as with all things in travel, make sure you read the fine print. Some signature dishes will require a supplement – we’ve seen everything from an additional $5 to an extra whopping $25.

Another way restaurants make up for their losses during Restaurant Week is to simply serve smaller portions. Again, researching this just takes a little effort – Yelp’s keyword search function for individual reviews becomes especially helpful here. Look for reviews that mention Restaurant Week and keep an eye out for complaints, discerning between new patrons and returning diners who compare Restaurant Week dishes to past meals.

Some cost-comparison examples: In New York, Tom Colicchio’s farm-focused Riverpark is a Restaurant Week favorite for good reason. Typically, the lunch entrees are $17-$25 and dinner entrees are $32-$39. The Restaurant Week menu is virtually the same, but the prix fixe prices are $25 and $38 respectively. This means that you’d effectively get your starters (usually $10-$13 for lunch and $12-$18 for dinner) and desserts ($4-$12) free. On the other hand, while we’re a big fan of Bar Boulud for solid French fare, their usual menu includes a $29 prix fixe for lunch and $45 prix fixe for dinner. In this case, the Restaurant Week deals, especially for lunch, aren’t a significant discount. A better deal would be its sister restaurant Cafe Boulud, where a three-course lunch goes for $43.

A great resource is Chowhound, a forum of diehard foodies who can speak to years and years of patronage in their cities’ restaurants. Members will often sound off on which places serve up solid Restaurant Week deals and which don't. You can also find price comparisons and links to reviews or older discussions in these threads.

Upcoming Winter/Spring Restaurant Weeks

Baltimore, MD: February 17-23
Participating restaurants: 75+
Dinner: $20 or $30
Lunch/brunch: $15 (select restaurants, two courses)
Note: Coincides with citywide promotions of free or BOGO hotel packages and attraction tickets.

New York, NY:  February 17 to March 7
Participating restaurants: 300+
Dinner: $38
Lunch/brunch: $25
Note: Saturdays excluded; Sundays optional. Reservations are currently open.

Louisville, KY: February 19 to March 5
Dinner: $50.20 per couple or per person, depending on restaurant
Note: Part of proceeds donated to Dare to Care food bank

Denver: February 22-28
Dinner: $30
Note: Website has easy-to-read vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free labels

Minneapolis–Saint Paul: February 23-28
Participating restaurants: 75+
Dinner: $15-$30
Lunch: $10-$20 (two courses)

New Mexico: February 23 to March 2
Participating restaurants: 55 in Santa Fe, 12 in Albuquerque, and 4 in Taos
Dinner: prices not yet available
Lunch: prices not yet available (two courses only at some locations)
Note: Classes, tastings, and other special events also on offer at select venues

Portland, OR: March 1-31
Participating restaurants: 99
Dinner: $29
Note: Donation is made to Oregon Food Bank with OpenTable reservations

Hudson Valley, NY: March 10-23
Participating restaurants: 180+
Dinner: $29.95
Lunch: $20.95

Boston, MA: March 16-21, 23-28
Dinner: $28, $33, or $38
Lunch: $15, $20, or $25
Note: Number of courses at each price tier varies by restaurant

Long Island, NY: April 27 to May 4
Dinner: $27.95
Note: Saturday specials only until 7pm at some locations

*Winter Restaurant Weeks in a some popular cities were already held in January, but many will also be organizing summer or fall editions as well.

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