7 Pro Tips for Hacking DC Restaurant Week

A food editor's advice on finding the best meals and deals.

Mintwood Place. Photo by Scott Suchman

Every time a restaurant week promotion rolls around, we’re asked two questions: What are the best restaurants? And where can you actually get a good deal? Determining the latter can be particularly tricky (people 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 for the promotion. Compare and contrast an ordinary menu with the restaurant week version, and gravitate towards spots with ample crossover like Mintwood Place or PassionFish.

Decide your budget ahead of time
Many restaurants include extras on their restaurant week menus, like $6 more for a crab cake or $12 for the New York strip. They’re tempting, especially when the chef’s signature duck is only $9 more. Remember: tack on enough extras and you may be spending the same as any other day. Better to decide your budget in advance than do the math when your stomach is rumbling.

Find the best deals at lunch and brunch
The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington sets prices at $22 for lunch and brunch, and $35 for dinner. This doesn’t include sales tax—ten percent in DC—or tip (20 percent, please). Add beverages (say, $12 for a glass of wine) and a dinner check can easily creep up to around $60 per person, which isn’t exactly a steal. Lunch can be the best deal—especially at the expense account spots—plus there’s less temptation to add a cocktail to a workday meal. The latter isn’t true at brunch, but some places offer a brunch drink as part of the package.

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 swanky Indian restaurant Punjab Grill, modernist 14th Street spot Bresca, or Sushi Taro. It can also be a good time to hit a pricey steakhouse like Charlie Palmer  or Randy’s (the latter offers a RW filet with no surcharge). The places we tend to avoid for dinner are those with appetizers around $10 and entrees in the low $20s. Then all you’re getting is a free dessert.

Beware the 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. If a kitchen goes from naming local farms on their menu to serving mystery meat, it may signal that the kitchen is cutting corners with cheaper ingredients.

Dine early
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a restaurant staff that’s psyched about restaurant week. The main reason: guests may tip poorly— some are looking to save, others aren’t familiar with the 20-percent rule—and the check average tends to be smaller, even with proper gratuity. That’s not to say all restaurant week diners are stingy, or that most servers are resentful. Still, if pleasant service is important to your dining experience, eat early in the week or day, when the staff still has patience to spare.

Take advantage of extensions
Many places extend the special menus for days and weeks beyond the Restaurant Week deadline to combat the January slump. Does it guarantee a good meal? No, but these restaurants are going all-in on the promotion, and may have seen enough positive results to keep it going.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.