Updated: Todd Kliman’s Guide to DC Restaurant Week 2012

Our lead critic shares his picks for the best dining deals.

By: Todd Kliman

If you want to get the most out of Restaurant Week—and isn’t that the point? to beat the system? to sit down to meals of uncommon deliciousness at a fraction of the cost of dining out normally?—then I have one big piece of advice for you:

Go for lunch.

Shelling out $35.12 for a three-course dinner just doesn’t strike me as a great bargain. If you’re a table of two, and you add in a couple of glasses of wine, tip, and tax, you’re looking at $120 when the check comes.

On the other hand, $20.12 for three courses at lunch is potentially a fantastic deal, especially when you consider the quality of cooking to be had at my Tier 1 places—the places I’m urging you to zero in on for the week. All of these restaurants earned a spot on our 100 Very Best Restaurants list this past January. If you’ve been saving up to taste one of Tony Chittum’s soups or salads at Vermilion, or one of Nick Stefanelli’s pastas at Bibiana, or one of Vikram Sunderam’s curries at Rasika, then this is your opportunity.

The restaurants in Tier 1 are places that are performing highly and either impressed me by making a good section of their menus available or are offering both lunch and dinner. I made exceptions in the case of Fiola and Mintwood Place, which are only open for dinner. The chance to feast on Fabio Trabocchi’s superlative pastas at Fiola is too great a lure, and Cedric Maupillier’s fabulous crispy-skin dorade at Mintwood Place is one of the finest dishes I’ve eaten this past year. These are restaurants at which you should expect the special.

You’ll notice only one sushi spot on the entire list—Sushi Taro—and no small-plates restaurants. My thinking is that Restaurant Week is a time to indulge on the cheap. I tend to think of small-plates eating as a not-exorbitant meal most of the time, and a three-course sushi meal is seldom as satisfying as a comparable Italian, French, or American meal. Sushi Taro is so good that I chose to ignore my own rule; even better, it is open for lunch. (I was tempted, at the last minute, to add the always-tasty and festive Zaytinya and the new, improved Jaleo, but stuck to my principles.)

You should expect a good-to-great meal at Tier 2 restaurants. I gave strong consideration to Elisir, Trummer’s on Main, Ardeo + Bardeo, and RIS for Tier 1. Trummer’s missed the cut because of a recent chef change—the sous chef, Cory Lambert, has taken over for Clayton Miller. Ardeo + Bardeo dropped to Tier 2 because I think its boisterous atmosphere is more suited to everyday dining; with Tier 1, you are hoping for a kind of pampered splendor, albeit at a cut rate.

Tier 3 is made up of places I’d consider if I were planning on dining out more than twice during Restaurant Week, or if I struck out on reservations for all the places in Tier I and Tier 2. I don’t mean to disparage any of these spots—I picked them from among the lineup of more than 200 restaurants taking part in the biannual promotion.

Tier 1

Adour at the St. Regis

Bibiana

Bistro Bis

Fiola

Mintwood Place

Rasika Penn Quarter

Sushi Taro

Tosca

Vermilion

Vidalia

Tier 2

Ardeo + Bardeo

BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant

Café du Parc

Elisir

Graffiato

Indique

Kinkead's

Liberty Tavern

Mio

Rasika West End

RIS

Trummer's on Main

The Oval Room

Tier 3

Bar Pilar

Birch & Barley

Circle Bistro

J&G Steakhouse

Lyon Hall

Poste Moderne Brasserie

PS 7's

Unum