Every time a restaurant week promotion rolls around, we’re asked two frequent questions: What are the best restaurants? And where can you actually get a good deal? Determining the latter can be particularly tricky—experts don’t call it “free dessert week” for nothing. After many, many restaurant weeks, we’ve come away with a few hard-and-fast lessons to get the most out of the experience.
Look at the restaurant’s regular menu
A great restaurant week menu looks like a regular menu—or at least a similar, condensed version. The kitchen may swap in a cheaper cut of meat, like a hangar steak for a ribeye, or serve slightly smaller portions. Still, it’s a good sign when a restaurant doesn’t completely shift gears–or lower standards–for the promotion. Compare and contrast an ordinary menu with the restaurant week version, and gravitate towards spots with ample crossover.
Decide your upcharge policy ahead of time
Many restaurants include tempting little extras on their restaurant week menus, like $6 more for a crab cake or $12 for the New York strip. These surcharges are tempting, especially when the chef’s signature duck is only $9 more. Remember: tack on enough extras, like a pricier dish and extra drink, and you may be spending the same as any other day. Better to decide ahead and do a little math when your stomach isn’t rumbling.
Find better deals at lunch
The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s Restaurant Week–the biggest in town–generally sets prices around $22 for lunch, and $35 for dinner. This doesn’t include sales tax—ten percent in DC—tip (20 percent, please), or beverages (say, $12 for a glass of wine). An average dinner check can easily creep up to around $60 per person, which isn’t exactly a steal. Lunches can be much better deals–especially at the expense account spots–plus there’s less temptation to add an expensive bottle of wine to a workday meal.
Pick expensive restaurants
If you’re looking for a dining deal, aim for restaurants where entrees alone can come near the cost of a three-course Restaurant Week meal—places like Fiola, Del Campo, or other splurge-worthy spots on our 100 Best Restaurants list. RW can also be a good time to hit a pricey steakhouse. The places to avoid are those with appetizers around $10 and entrees in the low $20s. Then all you’re getting is a free dessert.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a restaurant staff that’s psyched about restaurant week. The main reason: guests often tip poorly— some are looking to save, others aren’t familiar with the 20-percent rule—and the average checks tends to be smaller, even with proper gratuity. That’s not to say all RW diners are stingy, or that all servers are resentful. Still, if pleasant service is important to your dining experience, eat early in the week and/or day, when the staff still has patience to spare.
Beware the salmon filet and chicken breast
Especially if a restaurant never serves salmon filets and chicken breasts. As a restaurant chef/owner once told us, purveyors start pushing cheaper products around big restaurant week promotions, and it’s much less costly for a kitchen to offer farm-raised salmon and mass-produced poultry. If an eatery goes from naming local, grass-fed steak on their menu to a mysterious cut, it typically signals that the kitchen is cutting corners with cheaper ingredients.
Take note of extensions
For all of the places that drag their heels about restaurant week, others regularly extend the special menus for days and weeks beyond deadline. Does it guarantee a good meal? No, but these places are generally putting effort into the promotion, and seeing enough positive results to keep it going.